WASHINGTON-It's hard to complain when a prayer service runs long. And so no one in the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., seemed to mind Thursday night when a prayer gathering to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre ran an hour-and-a-half over schedule. Bob Fu, a Chinese Christian and organizer of the event, meekly smiled as he noted that the three-and-half hour service was short by Chinese house church standards: "They run five hours long."
Less than a few dozen people-mostly Chinese-dotted the straight-back pews in the cavernous Washington church, gathering to remember a day that changed many of their lives: In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, Chinese military unleashed gunfire and tank power on thousands of unarmed student protesters and other civilians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The massacre killed thousands-and injured thousands more-in one of the bloodiest government crackdowns in modern Chinese history. (See "The Tiananmen generation.")
Thursday morning, Chinese police flooded Tiananmen Square again, but this time there was no violence, only a heavy police presence to ward off any public protests on the massacre's anniversary. Chinese television stations blocked foreign coverage of any activities related to the anniversary, and the state-run media ignored the event, all part of a decades-long attempt to erase the massacre from Chinese memory.
But tens of thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong's Victoria Park Thursday night didn't forget. They swamped the outdoor venue for an annual candlelight vigil that represents the only large-scale public remembrance of the massacre in Chinese territory.
And the handful of Chinese Christians in the National Presbyterian Church hadn't forgotten either. Many of them were in Tiananmen Square during the massacre and witnessed the violence firsthand. Most weren't Christians at the time and said the tragedy in Tiananmen Square was a turning point for their embracing Christianity, along with many other students and intellectuals of their generation.
Several of those Christians helped lead the prayer service from their homes in China, with the help of a computer and a Skype connection. Midway through the service, Mingxuan Zhang's grainy image appeared on a large screen at the front of the church. Zhang-a leader in China's swelling house church movement-prayed for the families of victims of the Tiananmen massacre and for the growth of Christianity in China. Like many others who prayed from the podium on the church's expansive platform, or from small rooms in China, the Christians sounded a similar theme: repentance for their own sins and prayers for religious freedom in their home country.
Fu called the event "historic," noting that many Chinese church leaders have been reluctant to discuss the massacre in public. He said some Chinese pastors fear retribution from the Chinese government, and others simply avoid political issues altogether: "Today really breaks the ice."
If any of the Chinese leaders gathered in the church last night were fearful, it didn't show. Instead, they ended the prayer service energetically singing the hopeful verse of a familiar song: "Through many dangers toils and snares, we have already come. Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home."