UPDATE (11:39 a.m.): Police rearrested Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church Wednesday morning as his church planned to hold a meeting to pray over China. Congregants said the police then shut off the power to the office building where the church meets and posted signs that it was under maintenance. Church leaders emailed congregants to pray in their small groups instead, as police likely are watching the church building.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: CHENGDU, China—At the 9 a.m. service Sunday, Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church stood behind the pulpit in a spacious office building preaching to about 200 congregants about persecution. Stephen faced it, Wang said, Western missionaries to China faced it, and we may have to as well. Old women with canes, young couples wrangling toddlers, and college students together nodded. Afterward, discussions focused on what it would look like to fully live for Christ.
It wouldn’t take long to find out. Congregants leaving church at noon were greeted on the street by a police truck and two police cars near the building’s entrance, although a glance through the window found officers dozing off or playing on their iPhones. By that night, Wang would be arrested and another church member bludgeoned by police for passing out pro-life brochures.
Twenty-five years after China’s infamous crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, authorities still are ready to deal violently with anyone seen as threatening the Communist regime.
Chengdu is more than 1,000 miles from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, but the Early Rain Reformed Church is a well-known house church with about 500 congregants at its two locations. While unregistered, it doesn’t try to keep its work secret, with a website that includes Wang’s sermons, a seminary, and even a newly formed classical Christian school. While the church is usually left alone, police officers show up at special events like Christmas services and keep a wary eye on Wang, a former law professor who met with President George W. Bush in 2006 to discuss religious liberty in China.
This particular Sunday had police worried for two reasons. First, for the past two years, parishioners have passed out brochures on June 1, Children’s Day, urging mothers not to abort in honor of the holiday. Second, the Sunday service fell too close to June 4—the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre—for the government’s comfort.
Chengdu, like many cities across China, mirrored Tiananmen’s 1989 protests, which lasted for more than a month, and felt the backlash of the government’s brutal crackdown on June 4. Tear gas and stun guns initially broke up thousands of protesters in Chengdu’s main square. Eyewitnesses said police killed perhaps hundreds and wounded many as well.
Last year at this time, police arrested and interrogated for eight hours Jonny Fan, the church’s organizer of “Don’t Abort on Children’s Day,” and six other parishioners before releasing them. This year, the 27-year-old received a phone call on May 30 from the police asking him where he was and if he would be holding any events the following day. Given that the police mistakenly asked about Saturday, Fan honestly answered no.
For this year’s Sunday holiday, Fan printed 50,000 brochures denouncing the high rate of abortion in China (about 13 million babies a year, according to China Daily), explaining that abortion kills human life, and also pointing to the forgiveness for past abortions found in the gospel. The back of the brochure included contact information for the church, as well as the event’s account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. Congregants, many in their 20s, grabbed piles of the brochure to pass out all over town, eagerly chatting about their plans in the lobby.
Fan passed out the brochures with another congregant on a busy sidewalk for an hour, and this year went home unscathed. But in another area of Chengdu, Charlie Chang wasn’t so lucky. He had just finished passing out about 100 brochures and was getting more from his car when two police officers in uniform and one plainclothes officer approached him, asked for his information and what he was doing. Once they read the brochure in his hand, they told Chang (whose name is changed for security reasons) to come with them to the station. Chang declined, saying he hadn’t done anything wrong but would stop passing out brochures.
In response, the officers started cursing at him, pushed him to the ground, and kicked him in the head. Chang begged them to stop, as he had just had eye surgery, but they didn’t listen. Finally when they saw that his eye was actually tearing up, they stopped and allowed his wife to take him to the hospital. But the officers said they had his information and would look for him in the future. Chang left, blood dripping from his nose.
His wife took a few photos of the confrontation on her cell phone and immediately posted them on Weibo, which created a mixed response. “I saw a lot of people comment that they don’t think [abortion] is wrong, but that getting an abortion is typical,” Chang said in Chinese.“Why should you care what other people do? It made me upset. I think that getting hit by the police is a small thing, but so many people don’t understand that abortion is wrong. … This is why we must do this work.”
In another part of town, Wang, the Early Rain pastor, with his wife and his 7-year-old son decided to take a walk and pass out the brochures. As they finished, police approached Wang and told him to come with them to the local station. He obliged, and arrived at the station, where he was familiar with many of the officers who specifically keep watch over his church.
Because of Wang’s familiarity with Chinese law, he knew the police weren’t allowed to file a formal report without a just cause for arrest. Within half an hour, police released him after they found he had started evangelizing in response to their questions. On the way out, officers asked him not to pass the brochures out next year. He responded, “You know I’ll continue passing them out next year, and next year you’ll arrest me. Let’s just both do our part, what we think is right.”
Listen to WORLD's Mindy Belz discuss the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square with Nick Eicher on The World and Everything in It: