CECE HEIL, ACLJ
Last week was the Chinese New Year, the most important time for the Chinese people, a time when they get together to celebrate with family and friends. But during this time, 22 Christian brothers and sisters in Chengdu, southwest China, were not able to celebrate, as they have been detained for over two months and are facing criminal charges only because they want to openly practice their Christian faith.
All 22 Christians are members of Early Rain Covenant Church, one of the largest urban churches in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. The church was founded in April 2005 by Pastor Wang Yi. Pastor Wang is a former law professor who taught at Chengdu University Law School but left his teaching position to become a pastor of the church. Unlike most house churches in China that meet privately and in small sizes, the Early Rain church is one of the first house churches in China to worship openly with a large congregation of more than 800 members. In addition, the Early Rain church uses a public online platform to share the gospel.
However, local Chinese authorities have continually tried to close down this church once it started to meet and worship openly. In 2008, the local religious bureau issued an administrative order banning church meetings on the grounds of “illegal religious activities.”
Early Rain Church refused to comply with the order, and instead filed an administrative lawsuit against it. This is the first time a Chinese house church has litigated against the religious bureaus – and the church won! The local religious bureaus decided to withdraw the administrative decision.
But, a year later, in 2009, the local government tried again, with the local civil affairs bureau ordering the closure of the church by force. Once again, Early Rain Church took legal action against the civil affairs bureau and successfully stopped the enforcement of the order. Over the last 10 years, the church has continually been targeted by local authorities and has faced multiple orders for its closure. Furthermore, Pastor Wang was taken away frequently for interrogations by local authorities and national security agents. But the church services were never stopped.
However, in this most recent targeted attack, the Sichuan Provincial Government is determined to shut down the church by force. As we communicated previously, starting around 5pm, late Sunday afternoon, December 9, 2018, Chinese police raided the church over a 12-hour period; breaking into the individual congregants’ homes, threatening the families, and using powerful searchlights to intimidate the Christian believers. By 5am on Monday morning, more than 80 leaders of the church were taken into custody.
Pastor Wang Yi and his wife continue to be detained, and have been charged with the crime of “inciting subversion of state power,” one of the most serious crimes with a potential sentence of 15 years in prison. In addition to Pastor Wang and his wife, 12 Early Rain congregants are charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and 8 are charged with “illegal business operations.” Both of these charges carry with them a potential sentence of 5 or more years in prison. All three crimes are vaguely defined, and have frequently been used to sentence Chinese dissidents to imprisonment.
The 22 Christians under criminal detention are prohibited from communicating with their families, and are not even allowed to communicate with their attorneys! Some renowned human rights attorneys have been threatened by the judicial bureau to stay away from this case or face disbarment. As of today, we do not know the status of the Christians’ health or well-being as they are being kept in the detention center.
Unfortunately, it is much too common in China for individuals who are specifically targeted because of their religious activities to face charges which do not pertain to religion. This allows the government to target religious individuals for seemingly unreligious reasons. In a case similar to the 22 Christians in this case, Pastor John Cao, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., was wrongfully convicted for organizing illegal border crossings (a crime used to convict human traffickers) and has been wrongfully imprisoned in China for almost two years.
In 2018, the Chinese central government also has adopted a number of policies to increase its control over religious organizations and activities. Chinese Christians began experiencing increased persecution as local Chinese governments misapplied the newly amended Regulations on Religious Affairs to forcefully shut down house churches, tighten control of state-held churches, and illegally detain local believers. (Here is our Legal Analysis of China’s newly amended Regulations on Religious Affairs.) In 2018, our contacts in China received and collected information on more than 1,100 incidents of persecution targeting Christians. Roughly 80 believers were forcefully arrested and charged with crimes, and 34 of them have been sentenced to harsh prison terms. This worsening situation makes it more and more difficult for Christians in China to worship God openly and fearlessly.
No one should endure prison simply because of their desire to live out their Christian faith. Christians all over the world should be free to teach, worship, and practice their Christian faith without fear of persecution or imprisonment – including in China. We here at the ACLJ are committed to defending and advocating for Christians who are targeted for their faith. Join with us in fighting for their freedom by signing our petition today.
CeCe Heil is a Senior Counsel specializing in public policy and global legal matters including the United Nations. She heads a team of lawyers handling cases in defense of life, protection of US National Security interests and dealing with Islamic extremism.