Warning from Randy Alcorn: Parts of this article are disturbing. We are printing it so you can pray for our suffering brothers and sisters, and to answer those who claim Chinese Christians are no longer persecuted.
In the spring of this year, one of Voice of the Martyr’s most trusted contacts brought the following Chinese interrogation and torture photographs to us with documentation. The names of the policemen and the Christians have been independently verified. The photographer, an “insider,” assured the police that these photos of their work would go to their superiors as record of their “conscientious work” with the possibility of a “promotion.” Most of these believers are in their street clothes. The Chinese Christians who smuggled these photographs to us explained that the torture of Christians is a weekly affair. The photographer is now in hiding and will be for some years.
Sister Ma and her family were sound asleep one night in May 2001, when Chinese Public Security Bureau police burst into her house and arrested her, her son and her daughter-in-law. The police left her 5-year-old grandson alone with nobody to take care of him. A 27-year-old woman, a friend and fellow Christian named Yu Zhongju, dropped by the house during the raid and was also arrested.
According to interviews with members of Sister Ma’s house church and statements smuggled out of prison, dozens of church members were arrested at the same time and beaten with clubs, jolted with cattle prods and burned with cigarettes. When they fainted, buckets of water were poured on them to revive them. Interrogators stomped on the fingers of male prisoners and stripped off the clothes of young women prisoners and abused them.
“They used the electrical prods on me all over,” Ms. Ma said, fighting back tears. “They wanted to humiliate us.”
Additional details about Sister Ma’s arrest and torture were learned by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who reported on November 26, 2002, that police in a remote region of China had interrogated a woman named Ma Yuqin, but their efforts seemed unsuccessful. Kristof wrote: “She never broke when she was tortured with beatings and electrical shocks. Even when she was close to death, she refused to disclose the names of members of her congregation or sign a statement renouncing her Christian faith.”
While the physical abuse was almost unbearable, the mental torture was even worse. Throughout her ordeal, Ma Yuquin could hear the sounds of her son being tortured in the next room. They could hear each other’s screams-additional incentives to betray their friends and their faith. Recalling this, Ma Yuquin began to sob. “They wanted me to hear (my son’s) cries,” she said. “It broke my heart.”
According to VOM sources, Sister Yu was beaten to death while in custody.
Kristof verified what VOM has been reporting for the past 36 years: This kind of treatment has been common in China for more than half a century. Citizens-whose only crime is worshipping God-are burned with cigarettes, beaten with clubs and martyred for the faith.
“Persecution good for church”
After reading numerous stories like Sister Ma’s, one would inevitably assume or at least start questioning whether Christianity in China has any prospect and opportunities to survive, let alone grow. This question was clearly on the mind of Kristof, who wrote: “One of the ironies of Christianity in China is that in the first half of the 20th century, thousands of missionaries proselytized freely and yet left a negligible imprint. Yet now, with foreign missionaries banned and the Underground Church persecuted, Christianity is flourishing in China with tens of millions of believers.”
Indeed, in 1949, there were only 834,000 Chinese Protestant members. In 1982, the estimate was 35 million Christians. In 1987, Christians in China estimated that there were 50 million; and in 1991, a figure of 63 million was given to Protestants and 12 million to Catholics. Today even the officially registered church under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council admits that there are more than 15 million believers. But for every believer who worships in TSPM churches, there are at least six to seven who worship in their homes or in the “house churches.” It is difficult to estimate exactly how many Christians worship and serve in these house churches. In 2000, an unconfirmed report stated that there are approximately 80 million believers in the house-church movement. Clearly the house-church movement has been the mainstream of Protestant Christianity in China.
The heaviest concentration of Christians is in the provinces of Henan in Central China and Zhejiang in East China, just south of Shanghai. On the average, 10 percent of the population in these provinces is Christian. In some villages nearly half of the population is Christian. Today the gospel has spread to every province through Chinese itinerant evangelists. Even among the traditionally less reached provinces, such as Jiangxi and Hunan in Central China and among the border provinces of Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia (Islamic), Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, Guangxi, etc., house churches have been planted and are engaged in local evangelism. Christian growth has accelerated since the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square event. In the Nanchang area, for example, a communist journal reported that in a certain prefecture called Chinxien, there were 20 believers in 1984, but that number grew to 6,000 in 1991.
Why has Christianity grown so rapidly in China? One of the pioneers of the modern-day Chinese house-church movement-Pastor Samuel Lamb-spent 20 years in various prisons for his unregistered, evangelistic activities. He explained to a VOM representative that while the government hopes to destroy the unregistered church by stepping up efforts to suppress it, the result is actually the opposite: The church continues to grow rapidly as the communist government increases persecution against Christians. Persecution is the fuel feeding the flames of revival.
“Before I was arrested, my church had only 200 members. After I was released from prison the first time, I found the church had grown to 900 members! Then came the confiscation of the church. Before the government confiscated our church, the church numbered 900 members. After the confiscation, the church had grown to 2,000 members!” With a broad grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye, the elderly Pastor Lamb looked our VOM representative in the eye and exclaimed, “Persecution good for church!”
The Chinese church is growing rapidly, because it is persecuted. It is persecuted, because Chinese believers are standing firm as defenders of the faith.
The golden biblical passage for Christian apologetics is 1 Peter 3:14b-15. Peter is speaking here: “‘And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense (“apologeo”) to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”
Peter commands us to do apologetics, to sanctify the Lordship of Christ, especially in the context of persecution and suffering, which had already occurred quite often during his time. Peter’s suggestion is for Christians not to fear or be troubled by the intimidation, harassment, torture and even imprisonment from persecutors. Chinese house-church believers have adopted this approach. Their response demonstrates a central theme of Christian apologetics in both a defensive and offensive way. It is defensive, because of their willingness to suffer and die for Jesus and their tenderness to love their torturers. These attitudes show both the reality of the Lordship of Christ and the love of Christ for the sake of the gospel. These attitudes are also very offensive, because by acknowledging Christ as their Lord and their Lord only, these persecuted followers of Jesus offend any other system of belief and faith that believes otherwise. Thus, this has become one of the most important reasons for their persecution.
Since 1949, the history of the church in China has been one of persecution and suffering. Yet by going through different stages of suffering and persecution, the church in China has been transformed from a timid, “foreign-colored” institutional church into a bold, indigenous, institutionless church; and it has been changed from a dependent mission church to an independent missionary church. It is a church that has gone through the steps of the cross, following the footsteps of her Lord: betrayal, trial, humiliation, abandonment, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit of Pentecost. The historical shape of the suffering church in China indeed resembles the face of the Servant of the Lord, who suffered for her.
The Pattern of State Supremacy over All Religions
The traditional pattern of the church-and-state relationship in China is the supremacy of the state over religion. In traditional China, the emperor held the highest power. Today this pattern of state supremacy and official orthodoxy persists in China under a Socialist totalitarian state. That means there is no such thing as separation of church and state as understood in the West. The church must operate under the religious policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and under the legal ordinances of the state. The state has its own official orthodox, namely, Marxism, Leninism, and the Thought of Mao that the party seeks to propagate. (After the 15th CCP Congress, the thought of Deng Xiaoping was added to it.) All other ideologies and beliefs are considered “heterodox” (departing from accepted beliefs).
Religious activities carried outside of state control are not only considered heterodox in ideology, but also “illegal,” and hence are subject to prosecution, which is a form of legalized persecution. House churches that refuse to register with the state, and hence conduct their activities outside the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (sphere of control), come under this category of “illegitimate religious activities”; and some of the organized house churches that are active in evangelistic expansion are labeled as “cultic groups,” and these have become the state’s primary target of attack. (Editor’s Note: American charities do not have to register. They do so only for the positive benefits of tax exemption.)
The Place of the TSPM
China’s constitution declares that citizens of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief. Freedom of religion, however, does not include freedom of propagation outside the approved places designated for religious activities, nor does it include the freedom to establish churches according to one’s religious convictions.
After the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European communist countries in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party started a tight, controlling policy, implementing different systems in the name of “making religion compatible with socialist society” (People’s Daily, March 14, 1996).
According to the understanding of a Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) official: “compatible” means that religion is subordinate to socialism (Zong Jiao Gong Zuo Tong Xun, March 1996, p.31). (The RAB is a governmental department in charge of all religious patriotic organizations, through which the Communist Party carries out its religious policy.) That is to say that some religious doctrines and ethical teachings must be used to promote socialist construction after the religions have been reformed: All negative elements are eliminated, and each religion is willing to be under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party. More concretely speaking, the result of being compatible with socialism is that only certain “patriotic” religious professionals (with preaching certificates issued by the Chinese Communist Party) will be allowed to teach the ideals of love and sacrificial spirit, instead of teaching from the Bible about the Great Commission, Redemption, the Last Days and spiritual warfare.
The Chinese government believes the only legitimate sphere for Christian activities is the sphere of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement as one of the “patriotic organizations.” The Three-Self Reform Movement was set up by the State in 1950, and in 1954, was formally organized as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Its function is to assist the government in implementing its religious policy. The TSPM reports to the Religious Affairs Bureau, which approves registration, pastoral personnel appointment, leadership training and financial oversight. For example, in one registered TSPM church, when the pastor got sick, a second person was approved by the non-Christian (atheist) Religious Affairs Bureau to preach in his place. During this time, he must not preach when his assistant preaches. When he gets well and is able to preach, his assistant may not preach.
The Place of House Churches
House churches that have developed through itinerant evangelism or spontaneous growth of the church are considered illegal. They are now required to register with the RAB. One of the requirements for registration is that they must have a pastoral leader who is endorsed by the TSPM, which in turn seeks the approval of the RAB. Other requirements include a certain number of members, the organization of a church council, and an adequate reason to show that a church is needed.
Usually when a house church registers with the RAB, it must join the TSPM. Although one RAB official stated that one does not have to join the TSPM when registering, this is not common practice. If a house church does not register with the RAB or join the TSPM, its leaders are warned of the consequences. If they refuse to comply, their worship services are terminated, their leaders arrested and sent to labor camps; or as in some cases, they are fined. From 1996 to 1997, many church leaders were arrested for refusing to register and join the TSPM. The most well known of whom is Xu Yongze, who was arrested on March 16, 1997, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in early October.
Another less publicized case is that of house-church leader Yan Defeng of Heshui County, Gansu Province. Public Security Bureau officials harassed Yan for more than four years. He was first arrested in June 1995, chained to a heating pipe and forced to reveal the names of his house-church members. On Easter Sunday, March 1997, PSB police abruptly burst into Yan’s home as he and 18 other Christians were celebrating in afternoon worship. The PSB officials confiscated Bibles, hymnals and other Christian materials and arrested 14 of the believers. Seven of those attending the house-church meeting were detained for six hours and released. Five others were freed after they paid a fine. Yan’s brother, Dehui, was held for 15 days. Yan was detained for 53 days without a trial, and no explanation was given for his lengthy detention.
Why House Churches Do Not Register and Refuse to Join the TSPM
The alienation between house churches and the TSPM has been deeply rooted in the history of the church in China since 1950. Christians in the 1950s witnessed how the government used the TSPM to destroy both the institutional church established by Western missions and indigenous churches founded by Chinese believers. During the pastoral reform effort of the Great Leap Forward Movement, pastors who were unwilling to bow down to the absolute authority of the state were imprisoned-some for two decades. Many were sent to prison during this period through the betrayal of TSPM pastors.
Today in many cases, TSPM pastors inform the government of house-church activities, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of house-church leaders and members. Thus, to the house churches, the TSPM is an agent of the government. House-church leaders do not regard the TSPM and the China Christian Council (CCC) as authentic representatives of the Chinese church. Hence it is hard for them to be reconciled with their betrayers who are still betraying them.
Secondly, once a house church registers with the government and joins the TSPM, its activities are limited to Sunday worship. Even mid-week prayer meetings and fellowship groups in believers’ homes are forbidden. As a leader in the TSPM church, he must enforce this requirement over his own flock, which an evangelical pastor finds difficult to do. In his heart, he wants his church to grow. He wants the people to have their own Bible study groups. Once he joins the TSPM, he loses the freedom to pastor his flock according to the leading of the Holy Spirit. So he would rather suffer the consequences of arrest than to lose his spiritual freedom.
Thirdly, once a house church registers and joins the TSPM, it can no longer engage in evangelism outside the church building or designated places of worship. But house churches are committed to evangelism, and they have developed rather sophisticated systems of training itinerant evangelists and sending them to border provinces and neighboring provinces where the gospel has not been preached. If they join the TSPM, they would have to give up evangelism, a major part of their Christianity. Thus the issue is: to evangelize or not to evangelize? The laws of the land clearly oppose such church expansion through evangelism. Chinese house-church members believe Christians have a duty to work to fulfill the command of the Great Commission. So in the matter of evangelism, they would rather obey God than man (Acts 5:29).
Finally, the most important reason why house churches refuse to register and join the TSPM is their belief in the Lordship of Christ over the church. “Who is the head of the church: Christ, or the state?” they ask. The TSPM accepts the state as the supreme authority of church affairs. House churches are committed to obeying Christ; and if such obedience brings suffering, they would rather “walk the pathway of the cross” than obey an atheistic state power that frustrates them from serving Christ. These bold believers have come to expect persecution, because they are followers of Jesus rather than Mao and the Chinese Communist Party leadership. They know it has been granted to them for the sake of Christ “not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,” engaged in the same conflict as the apostle Paul (Philippians 1:29, 30).
Why would our Chinese brothers and sisters endure such agonies with no physical or political solution or salvation in sight? They know that they will win in the end, like the elderly Chinese woman we reported on last year who lined up every morning outside her jail cell. Instead of shouting, “Communism is good!” with the others, she would shout, “Jesus is better!” and then was forced to do push-ups as her punishment. Millions of overcoming Chinese believers proclaim, “Jesus is better!”
Editor’s note: Most of the text in this feature article was excerpted from two lectures presented by China analyst Bob Fu. Bob and his wife, Heidi, are Chinese Christians who were imprisoned in Beijing for holding evening Bible studies with university students. During the daytime, Bob taught English to high Communist Party officials. Mr. and Mrs. Fu and their family now live in the United States. Bob advises VOM on China issues and will be a visiting professor at Oklahoma Wesleyan University in the B.A. program on missions and the persecuted church during the January 2004 semester. He is completing Ph.D. studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Underground Christian Publications
Journalist Li Ying is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence in the Chinese gulag for her role in the publication of the South China Church magazine. She originally received a sentence of death by execution from the Middle Court of Jingmen City for “illegal publishing,” but international attention and pressure caused a higher court to reduce her sentence following a retrial in October, 2002.
VOM representatives met Li Ying’s mother, Shu Qin Gong, last year. (See VOM’s September 2002 newsletter.) She explained, “Li Ying knows to follow the Lord means suffering. Her suffering for Jesus is a glory.”
Only one Christian magazine is allowed in China, and it is published by the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Church. The government uses the magazine as a propaganda tool-all other Christian publications are illegal.
The Voice of the Martyrs is helping to print an underground church magazine managed by house-church leaders, called Love Feast. It features unregistered church news, testimonies, Bible studies, and sermons that inform and encourage Chinese believers in their Christian faith.
We also print the children’s storybook, He Lived Among Us, in both the Cantonese and Mandarin languages. We continue to smuggle thousands of Bibles and other Christian literature into China each year. Chinese pastors receive much-needed help through our Pastor Support Program, and families of imprisoned
Christians like Li Ying are helped through our Families of Martyrs Fund. With your support, we will continue to help our suffering brothers and sisters in China in the weeks and months ahead. Pray for Li Ying and other persecuted and imprisoned Chinese Christians who are only guilty of loving the Lord Jesus Christ.
(The Voice of the Martyrs, June 2003)