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China Change, December 21, 2018
On Sunday evening, December 9, while worshiping with members, Wang Yi (王怡), the lead pastor of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church was seized and taken away by police. The church was raided; books and other items were confiscated. In the same evening, police descended on homes of many members, demanding that they sign a pledge not to participate in “illegal gatherings of the Early Rain church” anymore. Over one hundred were taken away for refusing to sign. The church’s WeChat group was shut down, so were the personal accounts of many churchgoers.
The authorities outlawed the church, the church’s elementary school and its divinity school.
According to the latest report, 25 church members have been detained so far. Of the 15 who have been criminally detained, Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong (蒋蓉) were arrested for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power;” the other 13 (elders, deacons, or members) were detained for “illegal business operation” or “provoking disturbances.” Seven have been disappeared and 3 given administrative detention.
The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu is one of the best known house churches in China. Unlike any other Chinese house churches, Pastor Wang Yi and some of the church’s key members have been part of China’s emerging civil society since the early 2000s. Over the past few years, the church has attracted many human rights defenders and dissident intellectuals. In 2011, the church established a fund for families of political prisoners in Sichuan. Each year on June 4th, the church holds a prayer for the country to commemorate the Tiananmen democracy movement.
The church operates schools. “Each family, each church must defend the God-given sovereignty over the education of its children,” said Pastor Wang Yi, “even if we have to go to jail for it.” The church has a divinity school, an elementary school for 1st to 6th graders, a school of humanities, as well as a Sunday school.
(Members preaching on the streets of Chengdu.)
Pastor Wang Yi, who is 45 years old this year, is a Sichuan native who was born and raised in Santai county, Mianyang city. He graduated from Sichuan University law school in 1996, and taught at the business school of Chengdu University for a number of years. When Internet forums sprang up in China at the turn of the century, Wang Yi distinguished himself in a vibrant forum known as “Guantian Tea House” (关天茶社) where a new generation of intellectuals met, debated and made names for themselves. Wang Yi hosted a constitutional democracy forum that discussed China’s political transition.
In 2004, Wang Yi was selected by Nanfang People Weekly (南方人物周刊) as one of the “Most Influential Public Intellectuals.” Reporter He Sanwei (何三畏) described Wang Yi this way: “This young man is a bright sight to behold. His thoughts are sharp and deliberate, and his expressions well-formed and witty.”
The list included economist Mao Yuxi (茅于轼), lawyer Zhang Sizhi (张思之), political scholars Liu Junning (刘军宁), Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤), Xu Youyu (徐友渔), poet Bei Dao (北岛), rock singer Cui Jian (崔健), founder of Caijing magazine Hu Shuli (胡舒立), legal scholar He Weifang (贺卫方), and so on.
In April 2005, Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong started the Early Rain Blessings Fellowship in their home in Chengdu. Three years later in May 2008, the Early Rain Blessings Church was established. The Early Rain Covenant Church Currently has more than 500 members, and it is said that, on some weekends, there could be as many as 2,000 flocking to the church on the 23rd floor of the Jiangxin Building, in downtown Chengdu by the Jinjiang River.
Church elder Li Yingqiang (李英强), also a Sichuan native, is only 39 years old, but he was a prominent figure in China’s now-shattered scene of independent NGOs. He and a few friends founded the Liren Library (立人图书馆) in 2007 that brought books to the countryside. The idea was to “help rural youth grow to be healthy and normal citizens.” Liren Library had attracted many volunteers and donors. Over the seven years of its existence, they established 22 libraries in 12 provinces. But in 2014 at the onset of a sweeping crackdown on independent NGOs in China, Liren Libraries were forced to close down.
Another illustrious member of the church is Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), a prolific writer and an independent intellectual whose political and historical writings have influenced many readers of the internet age. He was baptized in 2016. He has been a key player in the church’s educational programs, and he is seen to give lectures on Chinese culture and Christianity during regular church gatherings.
Church activities have been for years surveilled and harassed. On May 11 this year, Chengdu authorities deployed over 300 people to prevent the church from holding a prayer for the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquakes.
The attack on Early Rain Covenant Church is part of the Chinese government’s broad and determined crackdown on house churches, and even some state-sanctioned churches, across the country since 2012. But it’s much more. On September 9, the government outlawed Zion Church, one of the largest house churches in Beijing. While church leaders have been under heavy surveillance, no arrests have been made.
In September 2017, the State Council issued revised Regulations on Religious Affairs (《宗教事务条例》), furthering tightening control of religious activities. The government has stepped up administrative measures to “sinocize” Christianity, and demolition of crosses and church buildings themselves. Churches are forced to display the national flag and sing praise of the Communist Party. China Change collected videos posted by churchgoers around the country and put them into one video to give our readers some visceral sense of the crackdown.
On September 1, 2018, under mounting pressure, 29 pastors in mainland China, led by Pastor Wang Yi, issued “A Statement for the Christian Faith.” As of now, more than 400 church leaders have signed it. The statement makes clear that the churches led by the signatories will only acknowledge, and submit to, the highest authority that is God, and that they will thus teach their members. The church leaders said that they would accept the government’s lawful regulation on civil organizations, but their churches would refuse to be co-opted by state-controlled religious organizations, nor would they register with religious management offices. Outlaw orders and fines levied on the churches, they said, would not be recognized or accepted. “For the sake of the gospel, we are ready to shoulder losses, and if we have to, pay the price of losing freedom and even life.”
On the day when Zion Church was shut down, Pastor Wang Yi delivered a forceful sermon: “We believe we have the responsibility to tell Xi Jinping that he is a sinner, and that the government he leads has greatly offended God, because he has used force against the church of Lord Jesus Christ. If he does not repent, he must perish. We have to tell evil men like him that they still have a way out, that there is only one way out, that way is the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” (Watch the full sermon here.)
Pastor Wang Yi was prepared for his arrest. Forty-eight hours after he was detained, his statement titled “My Declaration of Faith-based Disobedience” was posted online (a China Change translation is forthcoming).
He wrote: “The persecution of the church by the CCP regime is an extremely wicked criminal conduct. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must issue a severe and public condemnation of such sins.”
He said that his and the church’s actions of nonviolent disobedience are not in any sense rights defense actions or political acts of civil disobedience.
“As a pastor, the only thing I care about is faithful disobedience, a resistance that can bring a jolt to mortal sinners and serve as a testimony of the Christian cross.”
Just how the Chinese government is treating the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church is laid bare in the subversion charge.
Church elder Li Yingqiang issued a video for church members on December 10 while “on the run.”
“What do we do next?” According to their plans, the church will not compromise on its principles and determined path: While Pastor Wang Yi is away, the elders will take up the responsibility to shepherd the church. The church will not subject itself to government or Party control. The church members will stay together and worship together – if they can’t do so in their own church, they will rent a new venue; if they can’t rent a venue, they will worship outdoors. The church members will do everything they can to resist being forced to break up into small groups and to meet in homes of church members. If, in the end, they can’t even worship peacefully at
home, they are “ready to pay high prices.”
“We are not afraid of having two hundred, three hundred, or five hundred of us being arrested,” said Li Yingqiang. “We will let the world know that we are willing to go through such hardship for our faith. Dear brothers and sisters, I’m speaking to you while on the run. I hope you will be joyful because of the Gospel of Christ, that you will look forward to embracing a heavier cross and a more difficult career ahead.”
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The Burning Cross, a video compilation of church persecution in China, Sept. 24, 2018.
The Shepherds of Living Stone Church, Yaxue Cao, Dec. 25, 2016.
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, China Change, July 29, 2015.
Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the ‘Transformations’, China Change, Dec. 15, 2015.
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.