In February 2017, a court sentenced former deacon Zhang Xiuhong of the Living Stone Church in China to five years in prison for alleged "illegal business operation." Later that year, it was reported that authorities had tortured Pastor Zhang Shaojie of the state-run Nanle County Christian Church. Pastor Zhang is currently serving a 120-year sentence for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order." In November, a court sentenced Christian human rights lawyer and advocate Jiang Tianyong to two years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power."
These are just a few of the stories of persecution outlined in the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom's (USCIRF) 2018 annual report. These stories paint a serious picture of the persecution that Christians in China are currently facing.
In a recent piece in the Washington Times, Pastor Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, spoke on the persecution of Christians in China:
[T]he number of people arrested in China for exercising their religious freedom “has reached the highest level since the end of the Cultural Revolution.” He cited internal figures showing a nearly fivefold increase in the number of Christians who were persecuted by the government last year.
“For Christians alone, last year we documented persecution against 1,265 churches, with the number of people persecuted over 223,000. And that is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Fu said. “In 2016, there were 762 cases of persecution, according to our documentation, with the number of people persecuted 48,000. It really is almost five times [as much].”
He said ChinaAid knows of 3,700 Christians who were arrested in 2017, up from 3,500 the previous year. Some religious dissenters and human rights activists have been detained for years, Mr. Fu said, with their families left to wonder if they are still alive.
How does the church operate in China?
In China there are two types of churches: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches, which are regulated by the Chinese government, and the unregulated house churches. Three-Self churches are Protestant churches registered with the government. These churches receive money from the government while house churches are unregistered and receive no support from the government. There are currently estimated to be between 70-130 million Christians residing within China; however, it is important to note that many of these Christians do not belong to a state-sponsored church. Unregistered churches in China are facing increased pressure to register with the Chinese government. These house churches are often referred to as “evil cults” and are victims of significant vandalism to their church properties. While a great deal of the persecution against the church in China is directed toward house churches, TSPM churches are not immune to such persecution.
The main issue in China is not freedom of religion, as the Chinese government are typically indifferent to what people believe; the issue is more focused on the freedom of assembly. In countries where restrictive government systems are in place, such as communism in China, religious groups are typically heavily monitored and regulated. These governments are fearful of losing power and see large gatherings as a threat to their own stability. In the last year, Chinese churches have been victims of increased restrictions and surveillance, including the installation of government security cameras on church premises.
In the face of persecution, it is important that we pray for the endurance of the Christians in China, both those in and out of prison. We are also called to pray for the government leaders in China. Pray that Jesus would reveal himself to those government leaders who can end the persecution of the church. We should also honor the persecuted church by spreading the gospel at home where we do not face persecution. These stories should be brought to our attention and we must not ignore the persecution that our brothers and sisters in Christ face daily. Stories like Pastor Zhang’s, and countless others, prompt us to prayer and encourage us to be bold in our faith, embracing the religious freedom we are privileged to have in America.
May we learn from and be encouraged by the boldness of our brothers and sister in Christ in China, and not turn a blind eye to their plight.