China conducted a series of tightly coordinated raids on Sunday against the Early Rain Covenant Church in the city of Chengdu, arresting dozens of members including Pastor Wang Yi and his wife.
The South China Morning Post reported the social media accounts of Early Rain members were blocked on Sunday evening as the raid got underway. The government also cut the phone line to the church. One witness said Chinese police tracked down church members using the location signals from their smartphones.
Some members reported police released them on Monday morning but they remain under surveillance by Chinese security forces. The South China Morning Post reported authorities told some church members to sign pledges that they will never attend services again.
“The police said our church is an illegal organization and we cannot attend any more gatherings from now on,” church member Zhang Guoqing said after he was released from detention.
“Even if we are down to our last five, worship and gatherings will still go on because our faith is real. Persecution is a price worth paying for the Lord. We would rather live through it than to hide our faith and we hope more Chinese churches will speak up and stand with us,” church elder Li Yingqiang said defiantly.
According to religious freedom advocacy group ChinaAid, the eleven-hour assault was one of the biggest crackdowns conducted against the church, which Chinese officials targeted under new regulations requiring all Protestants to worship at churches sanctioned and controlled by the government and its Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee.
Religious freedom advocates note that membership in the Three-Self organization is no guarantee against official harassment ranging from intrusive inspections to orders that crosses must be made smaller or political speeches from Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping must be displayed on church grounds.
“The massive overnight attack against members of the independent, renowned Early Rain Covenant Church represents a major escalation of religious persecution in China,” said ChinaAid founder Dr. Bob Fu, who counts Pastor Wang Yi as a personal friend.
Fu noted China’s raid on Early Rain concluded in the wee hours of December 10, which is International Human Rights Day.
“Ironically this largest scale of arrests and clamp down on the international Human Rights Day shows Xi’s regime deliberately making itself the enemy of universal values, such as religious freedom for all. ChinaAid calls upon the international community to condemn these arbitrary arrests of innocent religious believers and urges the Chinese regime for their immediate release,” he said.
According to ChinaAid, over 100 of the church’s estimated 500 members were taken into custody. Some of them were separated from their children by the police.
Pastor Wang is an outspoken critic of Xi and a determined adversary of the new church registration regulations. The Wall Street Journal on Monday quoted praise for Wang as “the bravest pastor in China today” and saluted him for being the first signatory on a petition condemning Beijing’s crackdown on independent churches.
Wang published a scathing critique of China’s anti-religious policies on Saturday entitled “Meditations on the Religious War” that called Chinese Christians to civil disobedience and painted Xi as a would-be Caesar whose ideology is “morally incompatible with the Christian faith and with all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.”
It seems plausible this post on social media triggered retaliatory action from the Chinese government, which has generally refused to answer questions from Western media and human rights activists about the crackdown on Early Rain and its founder.
The U.S. State Department denounced China’s harassment of Early Rain Covenant Church in May when the church was planning a memorial service for victims of a 2008 earthquake. The State Department called on China to “uphold its international commitments to promote respect for religious freedom for all persons” and return Bibles confiscated from Early Rain members.