TheWall Street Journal
Nearly seven years after Warren Bird visited the biggestProtestant church in China, he’s still deeply moved as he recalls its pastor,“Joseph” Gu Yuese, preaching that morning from Psalms.
“His sermon was on how God understands our cares,” saysMr. Bird, an American researcher and expert on global megachurches. “He gotvery emotional—not in the sense of high emotion carried by his voice tone, butemotional in the sense of affirming, from the Psalms, that God cares about ourhearts, and God feels our pain, and God relates to us. It was like, wow.”
Mr. Gu’s sermon in Chongyi Church on that Sunday morningin August 2009 now feels eerie—and prescient. Psalms is a book about findingcomfort from God amid hardship and persecution, and this week Mr. Gudisappeared 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 region known forboth its flourishing Christianity and entrepreneurial spirit. Believers therehave long enjoyed relatively good relations with the authorities.
When I visited Zhejiang in 2012, Christians repeatedlytold me how they sought to obey both the government and God. Their extensivecharity—caring for the elderly, disabled and orphans; donating blood duringdisasters; feeding the poor—won them good will from authorities. They havepicked their battles wisely and compromised often, submitting to thegovernment’s demands whenever they feel it is morally permissible.
In 2001, for instance, provincial officials tried toforbid religious education for children. Churches pushed back, writing a jointappeal. They cited Chinese law, emphasizing their love of country. ThoughChristians refused to stop raising their children in the faith, they agreed topostpone some classes, offering a way for the government to back down and saveface. For the most part, this strategy worked. Sunday schools remain common inthe province.
Zhejiang’s combination of faith and patriotism hasunderpinned Mr. Gu’s pastoral career. Until January, he held leadership roleson two of the bureaucratic organizations overseeing state-sanctioned Christianityin China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council.And with the government’s approval, his Chongyi Church has thrived, drawing asmany as 10,000 attendees each Sunday.
But since President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013,religious persecution has intensified. In 2014 the central government namedreligion one of four “severe challenges” to national security in an officialreport. Weeks later, a memo leaked, calling for provincial authorities to “seeclearly 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 forcibly demolished morethan 1,800 crosses across Zhejiang. In one particularly gruesome incident,police beat believers with electric batons after they gathered to protest theremoval of a cross at Wenzhou Salvation Church. One man suffered a crackedskull. More than 95% of the torn-down crosses belonged to state-sanctionedchurches, which had painstakingly registered with the government in an attemptto operate in accordance with official policy.
“There was no compromise, no discussion—it’s an order,and you have to do it,” observes Fenggang Yang, director of the Center onReligion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. “For Christians in Zhejiang,this is a symbolic fight. The Christians treat the cross as very meaningful totheir faith, to their Christian life. They don’t see the legal basis for thecrosses’ removal.”
Mr. Yang noted that they tried to defend the crosses bylegal means, even hiring lawyers. Unfortunately, he says, the legal processeshave been stopped. The lawyers, as well as the church leaders who workedclosely with them, “have been arrested, because there’s no room for negotiationthrough the legal procedure. I think that it’s not that Christians areunwilling to compromise. It’s simply that the government side has provided noroom for any negotiation.”
Mr. Gu elected not to stay silent. He issued a publicstatement with the red stamp of the China Christian Council, where he wasprovincial chairman, calling the crackdown “barbaric.” On Jan. 18 Mr. Gu losthis job. Less than 10 days later, authorities seized Mr. Gu and his wife attheir home, later freeing her.
Mr. Gu was considered the poster boy for how ChineseChristians could practice their faith while obeying their government. Thatraises a daunting question for China’s Christians: If Mr. Gu can’t stay on thegood side of the authorities, who can?
Ms. Melchior, a writer for National Review and theSteamboat Institute, traveled extensively in China in 2012, reporting onChristianity as a Robert Novak Fellow.
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