In China, Churches Challenge the Rules

Bold Congregations Risk Official Wrath

WENZHOU, China — A new breed of churches in this region of China has demonstrated a boldness and independence unmatched elsewhere in the country, despite strict government guidelines for places of worship.

Here in Wenzhou and the surrounding province of Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai, a growing number of congregations that began life as house churches — unauthorized places of worship set up in private, often dilapidated homes — have recently registered with the government, while continuing to spurn the rules of the official Protestant church in China. Like so many institutions in China, these churches now hover in a sort of legal netherworld.

The official church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, was founded in the 1950s to free religious Chinese from foreign funds and influence. Its name is derived from the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of the Gospel.

The fact that many Christians in this region have turned away from the official church’s beliefs, analysts say, is a result of history and prosperity.

“Wenzhou’s Christians have a lot of social connections, a lot of friends, they’re very capable,” said Chen Cun-fu, director of the Institute of Christianity and Cross-Cultural Studies at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. “They’re smart, they know how to do things. They’re young, they have money, they have their own cars and cellphones.”


Meanwhile, a growing number of college students, lawyers, businessmen and preachers educated abroad are also joining illegal house churches.

According to the rules of China’s official church, midweek services are forbidden, as is proselytizing outside of church. But the rules are often bent, depending on the relationship between local officials and church leaders, and some independent-minded churches refuse to attend official meetings or pay official fees.

The well-worn Bailouxia church, tucked away down a small lane in this prosperous city, began as an illegal house church. But the church registered with the local religious authorities, and now displays a cross outside the building.

On a recent day, four elderly parishioners stretched out in varnished wooden pews, napping under ceiling fans. In a back row, a toddler fussed as a woman plucked the eyebrows of another worshiper using a thread.

“God’s temple is desolate,” sang a preacher at an electric keyboard, leading about 60 people in a hymn. “Where is the watchman? The wall is collapsed and everybody is only taking care of themselves.”

Clash Over a Building

Nothing illustrated the boldness of Zhejiang’s Christians more clearly than the hasty building of an illegal house church this summer in a suburb of Hangzhou, the provincial capital. When local officials demolished the church, a massive riot ensued, with 3,000 protesters facing off against thousands of uniformed riot police, security guards and plainclothes police.

It was the most dramatic example in a series of arrests, raids and demolitions of churches considered illegal by the authorities. Some observers said the riot was only the latest chapter in a long-running battle between authorities and the more outspoken of China’s growing population of 45 million to 65 million Christians. Other activists said it represented a stepped-up persecution of unregistered congregations.

The 85-year-old church, in the suburban district of Xiaoshan, had its own building before government officials turned it into a hospital many years ago. Since then, members had haggled with officials for compensation and a new location, most recently rejecting a government-approved spot beside a noisy highway.

“Xiaoshan people have the tradition of family or house gatherings and they’re rich, so they want more freedom,” said Chen. “It’s hard for the government to regulate them and tell them where to build their church.”

Tired of delays, church members decided in July they couldn’t wait any longer. Hundreds gathered in Xiaoshan’s Cheluwan village to build the church by hand. They began on a Monday, one group encircling the site to serve as protection with a second group working in rotation through the night. Some volunteers cooked while others stood above one another on metal scaffolding, handing up bricks, sand, cement, shovels and rope.

By Saturday morning they needed only to lay the roof. But on the afternoon of July 29, authorities sent several hundred trucks, four bulldozers, and thousands of riot police, security officers and non-uniformed guards to the scene. Police used bullhorns to order everyone to disperse.

“Stop all illegal activity,” the police demanded, as bystanders used their cellphones to photograph their arrival. “Nobody should obstruct state officials who are executing their public function. Nobody should make up facts, spread rumors or disturb social order.”

A riot broke out as church members tried to stop the demolition. More than 50 people were detained and many were beaten, said an attorney for the detained, who interviewed and photographed the injured. Six church leaders remain under arrest for instigating violence and interfering with the law. Prosecutors will decide whether to formally charge them this month.

The head of the village, who said his surname was Wang, insisted there had been no injuries and complained that the church was unregistered and illegal.

“They’re absolutely lawless. They consider God to be the most powerful authority and ignore the law,” Wang said in a telephone interview.

Official state media reported only that an illegal building had been dismantled, but news of the riot, arrests and beatings spread quickly among Christians.

“This would only happen in Zhejiang. In other provinces, Christians wouldn’t dare to build a church this way,” said a preacher in a registered Three-Self church in Hangzhou that has several thousand worshipers. He asked not to be named because religion is such a sensitive topic.

“The authorities pay no attention to what you preach, so long as you don’t talk about political issues,” the preacher said. “The law in China is very fluid. They can regulate but people sometimes do what they want.”

In Xiaoshan, however, residents now live in fear. There is an ongoing investigation into who leaked news of the riot to foreign media. One villager said police have been waiting outside the homes of active Christians and posing as journalists.

“You can’t speak loudly or talk to outsiders or strangers. There are plainclothes police paying close attention to the houses where Christians live,” he said. “They stop people on the street, and in the middle of the night. They ask where the leaders have gone.”

‘It’s Just a Name’

Hu Qianjie, the 32-year-old owner of a Wenzhou welding factory, is one of the growing number of independent-minded preachers at registered churches in China. The son of peddlers, he grew up in poverty and remembers Christians coming to help pray for a sick younger brother.

“I was so confused about what I was taught in school — that socialism was good, everybody was equal, no job was better than another,” he said of the search that led him to convert to Christianity when he was 17. Today, despite the fact that he leads a congregation affiliated with the official church, he makes his own views known.

“We look like we might be under the umbrella of the Three-Self church but actually it’s just a name, like a sign hanging in front of your house,” he said. “I don’t just explain the Bible to my followers, I link it to the current situation of society.”

Hu rejects the formulaic nature of official Three-Self sermons that stick strictly to the Gospel. And he is critical of early Communist Party attacks on any Western ideology, arguing that Christian cultures are better at absorbing useful lessons from other societies. “Chinese culture just expels everything that doesn’t fit with its own culture,” he said.

By making the church relevant to the lives of young Christians, Hu also hopes it will fill a void because the government is unable to provide moral leadership.

“We don’t talk publicly about sensitive, political issues,” he said. “We focus more on abortion, divorce, extramarital affairs. The Communist Party has no more standard for that, no more restrictions on that.”

Zheng Datong, a Wenzhou preacher who gives sermons in both registered and unregistered churches, said churches in China are an important outlet for the middle class in Zhejiang province.

“I have many friends who are middle class and who own their own businesses,” he said. “I can tell there is a need for them to do some soul-searching. People have everything now — they have cars, they have houses — but no peace.”

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

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The Washington Post, USA
Oct. 1, 2006
Maureen Fan, Washington Post Foreign Service
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This post was last updated: Dec. 22, 2006