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Test Migration New

Houses of Worship: China’s New Crackdown on Christians

TheWall Street Journal


JillianKay Melchior

Nearly seven years after Warren Bird visitedthe biggest Protestant church in China, he’s still deeply moved as he recallsits pastor, “Joseph” Gu Yuese, preaching that morning from Psalms.

“His sermon was on how God understands ourcares,” says Mr. Bird, an American researcher and expert on globalmegachurches. “He got very emotional—not in the sense of high emotion carriedby his voice tone, but emotional in the sense of affirming, from the Psalms,that God cares about our hearts, and God feels our pain, and God relates to us.It was like, wow.”

Mr. Gu’s sermon in Chongyi Church on thatSunday morning in August 2009 now feels eerie—and prescient. Psalms is a bookabout finding comfort from God amid hardship and persecution, and this week Mr.Gu disappeared into the hands of the Chinese government. He is reportedlyimprisoned in a secretive “black jail,” notorious for deplorable conditions andeven torture. Not since the Cultural Revolution has the Chinese government goneafter such a high-ranking church leader.

Mr. Gu comes from Zhejiang Province, a regionknown for both its flourishing Christianity and entrepreneurial spirit.Believers there have long enjoyed relatively good relations with theauthorities.

When I visited Zhejiang in 2012, Christiansrepeatedly told me how they sought to obey both the government and God. Theirextensive charity—caring for the elderly, disabled and orphans; donating bloodduring disasters; feeding the poor—won them good will from authorities. Theyhave picked their battles wisely and compromised often, submitting to thegovernment’s demands whenever they feel it is morally permissible.

In 2001, for instance, provincial officialstried to forbid religious education for children. Churches pushed back, writinga joint appeal. They cited Chinese law, emphasizing their love of country.Though Christians refused to stop raising their children in the faith, theyagreed to postpone some classes, offering a way for the government to back downand save face. For the most part, this strategy worked. Sunday schools remaincommon in the province.

Zhejiang’s combination of faith andpatriotism has underpinned Mr. Gu’s pastoral career. Until January, he heldleadership roles on two of the bureaucratic organizations overseeingstate-sanctioned Christianity in China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement andthe China Christian Council. And with the government’s approval, his ChongyiChurch has thrived, drawing as many as 10,000 attendees each Sunday.

But since President Xi Jinping assumed officein 2013, religious persecution has intensified. In 2014 the central governmentnamed religion one of four “severe challenges” to national security in anofficial report. Weeks later, a memo leaked, calling for provincial authoritiesto “see clearly the political issues behind the cross[es]” that dominate thearchitectural landscape in Zhejiang Province, urging them to limit the spreadof Christianity.

Since then, the government has forciblydemolished more than 1,800 crosses across Zhejiang. In one particularlygruesome incident, police beat believers with electric batons after theygathered to protest the removal of a cross at Wenzhou Salvation Church. One mansuffered a cracked skull. More than 95% of the torn-down crosses belonged tostate-sanctioned churches, which had painstakingly registered with thegovernment in an attempt to operate in accordance with official policy.

“There was no compromise, no discussion—it’san order, and you have to do it,” observes Fenggang Yang, director of theCenter on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. “For Christians inZhejiang, this is a symbolic fight. The Christians treat the cross as verymeaningful to their faith, to their Christian life. They don’t see the legalbasis for the crosses’ removal.”

Mr. Yang noted that they tried to defend thecrosses by legal means, even hiring lawyers. Unfortunately, he says, the legalprocesses have been stopped. The lawyers, as well as the church leaders whoworked closely with them, “have been arrested, because there’s no room fornegotiation through the legal procedure. I think that it’s not that Christiansare unwilling to compromise. It’s simply that the government side has providedno room for any negotiation.”

Mr. Gu elected not to stay silent. He issueda public statement with the red stamp of the China Christian Council, where hewas provincial chairman, calling the crackdown “barbaric.” On Jan. 18 Mr. Gulost his job. Less than 10 days later, authorities seized Mr. Gu and his wifeat their home, later freeing her.

Mr. Gu was considered the poster boy for howChinese Christians could practice their faith while obeying their government.That raises a daunting question for China’s Christians: If Mr. Gu can’t stay onthe good side of the authorities, who can?

Ms. Melchior, a writer for National Reviewand the Steamboat Institute, traveled extensively in China in 2012, reportingon Christianity as a Robert Novak Fellow.


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