Cover Story

Remember those who are in prison

"Remember those who are in prison" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

Back in California, Gao’s wife dabs tears with the short belt of her blue dress as she talks about the ordeal. Geng is grateful for her home in America, but she agonizes over the separation from her husband. She’s slowly learning English, but speaks through a translator. Friends and aid groups have helped with some expenses, but money is tight, and Geng works part-time as a helper to an elderly Taiwanese woman. 

Her children have adjusted well: Her daughter enrolled in college, and her son is enjoying elementary school. But Geng struggles with loneliness. She rarely talks with her family in China, since authorities likely listen to their phone calls. And she worries about Gao. It’s impossible to know about his physical and spiritual well-being, but she believes his Christian faith sustains him.

It helps sustain her too. Before arriving in the United States, Geng wasn’t a Christian, and says it troubled her husband: “He would say, ‘I hope you can have the same faith, and our whole family can go to heaven. We can’t leave you behind.’”

After her arrival, Geng read her husband’s articles and letters, and began to embrace Christianity. She attends a local church with her son, and finds spiritual unity has brought her closer to her husband, though geographically they remain far separated. During Sunday worship services, she says: “I feel like my whole family is standing before God. It’s the only moment we are all together.”

And though Geng battles fatigue and pressure, she remains determined to speak up for her husband: “They want people to forget about Gao, but I want people to remember him.”

Most Christians in China don’t suffer like Gao. Indeed, experiences vary widely for the country’s Christian population. 

Though estimates also vary, OMF International (formerly China Inland Mission) estimates the number of Protestant Christians at 70 million. That’s a small percentage in a country of 1.3 billion people, but Christianity has exploded over the last three decades. OMF reports Protestant Christians in China numbered around 1 million in 1949.

Most churches belong to a burgeoning house-church movement: Leaders reject government requirements to register their churches, since oversight can extend to control of church leadership, teaching, and finances. Other churches belong to the government-monitored Three-Self Patriotic Movement. 

For both groups, freedoms vary depending on location. Some report few problems, but all must be careful: Chinese law prohibits most evangelism, and regulates Christian publishing. (Chinese law regulates religious practices of other groups as well, and persecution extends to other religious minorities.)

The Midland, Texas-based group ChinaAid reports Christian persecution in China worsened significantly over the last 18 months. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that Chinese attempts to suppress house-church growth are “systematic and intense.” Suppression includes church raids, arrests, and arbitrary detentions. 

Members of Shouwang Church—the largest house church in Beijing—began meeting outdoors in April 2011, after authorities blocked access to their meeting space. Officials have detained and released scores of church members, and the pastor and elders remain under house arrest. Still, church members continue attempting to meet outside each Sunday.

House-church leaders report increasing pressure to register their congregations, as the Chinese government increases its attempts to shape church life and thought. The country’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) reports its aim is to “guide religions to fit into socialist society.” 

According to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, SARA’s 2012 goals include plans to “guide the Christian community,” “deepen the construction of theological thought,” and “use theological thought propaganda teams.” 

SARA director Wang Zuo’an wrote in a December 2011 People’s Daily article: “We cannot snuff out religious culture, but instead must guide it.” Another government official, Du Qinglin, wrote in April: “We must dig deeply into the essence of religious culture and remove the chaff.”

For Chinese officials, Liu Xianbin is part of the chaff. 

The jailed Christian dissident began his political activism in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Liu’s participation in the democracy movement led to a two-year prison sentence in 1992.

By 1998, he had co-founded a local branch of the China Democracy Party, and established a branch of China Human Rights Watch. He advocated for greater liberties, including religious freedom. A year later, Chinese authorities convicted Liu of subversion of state power, and sentenced the activist to 13 years in prison.

Officials released Liu after nine years, and the activist immediately returned to his advocacy: Liu was one of the first signers of Charter 08, a document by Chinese activists calling for sweeping democratic reforms. The charter includes a call for freedom of religious practice, and abolishing laws that require churches to register with the government. 

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