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Christians come under attack in China as number of independent believers grows

Posted by Author on August 9, 2010

By Bill Schiller, Asia Bureau, The Toronto Star, Canada, Aug. 8, 2010 –

— Old Wang was fast asleep in his bed when the mob arrived.

It was 3 a.m. one Sunday last September.

“People shook me and told me. ‘Get up. Get outside. Hurry up!’ ”

What he witnessed on the grounds of the Gospel Shoes Factory – a rural Christian community where he lived and worked with 60 others near here – was complete chaos: a raging mob of more than 200 men were pushing their way through the darkness with flashlights, wooden clubs, bricks, hoes and pieces of metal, smashing everything and anyone in their path.

A perimeter wall had been toppled. The main gate was smashed. Men were pouring through it.

Behind them came a roaring bulldozer, then an excavator.

As Wang stared in disbelief, he was clubbed over the head and trampled to the ground, his face streaming with blood.

Then someone hurled a brick at him, fracturing his leg.

As he lay there he could hear a man yelling, “Beat them. Beat them as hard as you like. I’ll take responsibility for everything.”

To his amazement, and the amazement of other eyewitnesses, the mob was led by a local Communist Party official backed up by uniformed police.

They were clearly on a mission. But what that mission was, wasn’t clear to those under attack.

It was, in fact, one of the more violent flare-ups in China’s ongoing campaign against Christians, a community that – according to researchers – exceeds 100 million and is growing rapidly.

That growth has stoked concern and even alarm among some government officials, who see the spread of Christianity as a threat to their authority.

Officials here took the threat seriously and decided to act – with force.

The Gospel Shoes Factory had all its papers in order. It had a building permit. Its business license was current.

But it also had a church.

China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it comes with a catch: every church must register with the government and submit to control by the Communist Party of China.

The Gospel Shoes church was not registered: it was what is known in China as a “house church.”

The government maintains the same registration requirements for China’s four other “officially approved” religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Catholicism. Each is assigned a government-appointed body that oversees the group’s activities throughout the country.

But Gospel Shoes was operating without such oversight. As a consequence it was deemed illegal.

So over the course of the next few hours, under the direction of the Communist Party and local police, the mob bulldozed the factory and church into the ground.

In the process they killed livestock, looted appliances and wounded 30 members of the community, seven seriously.

Most were taken to hospital by tractor and private cars.

“As long as I have lived, I have never seen brutality like this, “ says Old Wang, a Christian man in his 40s dressed in trousers and a t-shirt, who asks that his first name not be used for fear of reprisals.

“My father was a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army,” he says. “I was raised to respect authority. But how can I, after this?”

The Star also viewed copies of more than 20 other individual, eyewitness accounts signed or stamped with official thumbprints corroborating Wang’s account.

“This was the most violent attack on a house church in China in a decade,” says Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who later defended one of the church leaders.

It was also a sign, says Li, who is also a Christian, that the government has grown frightened of the house church movement – those churches outside the government’s grip that are growing with increasing speed.

“The government is beginning to realize that they’re beyond their control,” he says.

Some academics who study religious movements in China agree.

Protestant Christianity especially, they say, is experiencing “explosive” and even “exponential” growth in China, both in the countryside as well as in major cities: from Heilongjiang province in the north to Guangdong province in the south – from cities like Shanghai and Chengdu, to Beijing and beyond.

When Mao Zedong first took control of the country in 1949, there were just 1 million Christians in China. Today, while it is difficult to calculate a precise number, many now estimate that number to have grown by a hundred-fold.

By comparison, the Communist Party itself has just 70 million registered members.

And the numbers of Christians are growing. Some academic studies place that growth at 5 to 7 per cent annually. But most feel that pace has now accelerated.

“The house churches have been growing so fast,” eminent American sociologist Richard Madsen told an audience in Philadelphia last year, “that the government can neither stop them, nor ignore them.”

What happened in Linfen could be seen as a one-off – a rare and violent reaction by local officials in the far-off countryside responding to a unique local circumstance.

But evidence from media reports, rights organizations and interviews with religious leaders and believers across the country, suggest it is not.

Instead, what happened in Linfen is only the most egregious example of a pattern of state surveillance, harassment, intimidation and threat that has increased over the past 18 months, as the Communist Party of China struggles to come to terms with what some say is a difficult truth: its policy on religion is failing.

”The policy is, on its own terms, a complete failure,” according to Prof. Madsen, who has studied religion in China for more than 20 years. And there are signs, he says, that the Chinese government is realizing it.

Communist theory has long held that religion is nothing more than “superstition and foolishness,” and that as China prospers and becomes more modern, religion will fade away.

But that hasn’t happened.

Instead, religious belief is growing.

In an age when China has abandoned Communism in favour of market principles, more and more people are turning to religion, “looking for hope, and a better life,” says Madsen, head of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

Party members also confide that Christianity’s rapid rise has raised concern within the Communist leadership itself: a new set of closed-door conferences is being held in Beijing and the Party is commissioning new research on how to respond.

This isn’t purely about religion, of course.

What troubles China’s central government isn’t belief – but the fact that the house churches are growing into a potentially formidable force with leadership, organizational structures, independent financing and a loyal and growing following.

It is these kinds of characteristics, they fear, that could build into an alternative belief system in opposition to the government.

“Of course that’s why they’re wary,” says Madsen.

Back in Linfen, the local authorities were very wary – and far from finished.

After crushing the Gospel Shoes factory, they didn’t stop there.

When a well-known, local preacher, Yang Rongli, dared to mount a day of prayer and protest at the site and threaten to take the church’s grievances all the way to the central government in Beijing, she was arrested with four other church elders.

Yang, a university graduate and fourth generation Christian, was leader of Linfen’s Golden Lamp Church – the mother church of Gospel Shoes – believed to be the biggest house church in all of China, boasting 50,000 followers.

In 2008, Yang and church elders had raised the equivalent of $1.5 million in donations from church followers to build the towering, eight-storey, Golden Lamp Church.

In size, it rivaled all local Communist Party buildings .

As Yang was being arrested on her way to Beijing on Sept. 25 last year, hundreds of armed, uniformed and riot police swooped down and surrounded the Golden Lamp.

“I was inside,” says one church elder who has still managed to elude arrest. “There were about 100 of us in there. And we all knelt to pray.”

“No one slept that night,” he adds. “We were just too nervous.”

The standoff lasted 24 hours.

At 4 p.m. the next day, armed police moved in, took control of the church and arrested more leaders.

Following a one-day trial, Yang Rongli and four other church officials were sentenced to three to seven years in prison for constructing a church on agricultural land and for mounting a protest that had blocked traffic.

Five other church officials were also sentenced – without trial – to two years of “re-education” in a government-run labour camp.

Today the Golden Lamp Church, still under state control, faces a demolition order. Just as they crushed the Gospel Shoes complex, authorities intend to reduce the Golden Lamp to rubble.

Official papers have been issued, but no date has been set.

Zhang Kai, one of the defence lawyers at the trial, has appealed the demolition order but the appeal was rejected.

In July, Zhang traveled to Linfen, some 800 km. southwest of Beijing, to address court officials directly.

But police at the courthouse blocked him from entering.

Zhang showed them his lawyer’s license – but that was useless.

“They said, ‘You’re Zhang Kai. You’re not allowed in here. Those are our orders,’” says Zhang.

Still, Christian believers here remain defiant.

“Even if they do destroy the church, it won’t destroy our faith,” says the elder who was trapped inside the church the night of its siege.

“We believe in what we believe,” he says…….. (more details from The Toronto Star)

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