Arrest first, ask questions later

China | House-church roundups nab U.S. visitors but nail Chinese

Issue: "Faith-based about-face," Aug. 27, 2005

Eric Pilson is not entirely sure what provoked the police raid on his friend's house in Hubei province, China. The number of people slowly gathering at the home-42 Chinese in total-may have aroused suspicion.

Whatever the reason, Americans Mr. Pilson and Daniel Cohee found themselves snatched up in a raid on the underground South China Church on Aug. 2. While they were reading their Bibles after breakfast on the second floor, plainclothes officers barged in. The officers shoved and yanked the two seminarians toward the door, at first not even allowing Mr. Pilson to slip on his shoes, while rounding up the rest of the household.

The two Americans could not understand the officers, stumbling through a Chinese phrasebook and flagging onlookers congregating outside the house for anyone who spoke English. "I couldn't tell who was a family member, who was a neighbor, and who was police," Mr. Pilson said. "It was very unorganized, kind of chaotic." The officers drove them to a plain government building-not a police station-for a seven-hour interrogation.

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Messrs. Pilson and Cohee fit a new trend: increasing arrests of Americans caught with Chinese Christians. On Aug. 15, just 13 days after authorities arrested the seminarians in Hubei, officers in Henan province arrested five more Americans. According to the Texas-based China Aid Association, four were at a house-church gathering, while the fifth was simply walking a street in Yichuan City with a Chinese pastor when two plainclothes officers trailed and nabbed them. Days later, no information on their names or where authorities were detaining them was available. In late February, authorities deported eight Americans caught teaching church leaders in Heilongjiang province.

For more than a year China has been scaling up its crackdowns on underground churches. Part of the motivation comes from Communist Party missives to stamp out "evil cults." But a new law on religious practice also took effect in March, which is squeezing house churches to register officially with the state or face stern legal reprisals. Arrests of Americans, however, are unusual.

"There is an anti--'evil cult' campaign," explained China Aid President Bob Fu. "This time they're specifically targeting churches. The campaign also seems to be aimed at ending foreign infiltration forces." That makes Americans prime targets, and in the thinking of Chinese officials, there is a "U.S.-led Western conspiracy to Westernize and divide China," Mr. Fu said. "That's their feeling and policy."

China Aid recently obtained secret documents issued by Shayang City in Hubei province and Datong City, Shanxi province in January instructing officials on how to handle "cults." The directions describe religious cults, which are vaguely defined, as akin to mafia-like groups and as anti-science and anti-society.

Officers questioned Messrs. Pilson and Cohee: Why did they have Bibles? What were they doing in a non-tourist area? The two asked in return to call the U.S. embassy, and to know why they were being held. Officers gave them no response. Only one senior officer bothered to show them his police identification.

"We asked them if they'd ever arrested a foreigner, and they said no," said Mr. Pilson. "We asked them if they'd ever seen a foreigner-they said no . . . it seemed like they didn't know what to do because we were Americans."

If gruff, local authorities are careful not to mistreat U.S. Christians. They do not extend the same courtesy to local Chinese. Hubei authorities tortured many of the 42 they detained, members of the downtrodden South China Church.

"Almost primarily just the nationals are treated most poorly, just because Americans are high-profile," Mr. Pilson said. "Chinese are weaker. They can do what they want to them and no one really cares."

By Aug. 13, authorities had released all but two of the Hubei Christians-10 days earlier than expected. The surprise leniency was likely connected to the first visit to China of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, federally appointed agency that reports to the State Department. Commission delegations have toured countries controlled by religious-freedom violators, such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, but had to cancel a 2003 China trip when the government blocked their stopover in Hong Kong and fudged on allowing meetings with religious leaders. This first tour is scheduled to run Aug. 14-28.

The early release was also a desperately needed reprieve for Chinese Christians. Officers forced one woman to stand with her arms outstretched, and burned her with a cigarette when she fell over. A 15-year-old girl was punched so savagely on the side of her face that her eyes swelled. Officials pulled down the pants of another woman, made her kneel, and thrashed her buttocks with bamboo sticks until she bled.


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