Amid vigorous debate among scholars in China on the status of house churches, one prominent scholar has suggested the government offer more openness and legal standing to house church Christians, but authorities have reacted with raids, arrests, forced church closures and a ban on the Chinese Federation of Christian House Churches.
Scholar Yu Jianrong and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence, particularly since Yu’s research estimated the total number of Protestant house church Christians at between 45 and 60 million, with another 18 to 30 million attending government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.
The one-year, government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state.
Yu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, used a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.
After comparing various research statistics, Yu determined that Protestant house church members numbered between 45 and 60 million, with another 18 to 30 million attending government-approved churches. He acknowledged in one interview, however, that the total number of Protestant Christians might be as high as 100 million.
Highlighting discrepancies between government figures and those from other sources, Yu claimed that some official churches under-reported attendance to deflect government scrutiny, while some Christian organizations working in China inflated house church figures to attract support from foreign donors.
Yu then examined the rapid growth of house churches and concluded that love and concern for fellow believers and the evangelistic nature of Christianity were key factors driving the growth of the church.
Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and was impressed by the religious devotion of church members; he also noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.
The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned quite openly but independently of government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.
While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.
In a speech at Beijing’s Peking University last December, Yu noted clear differences in the training of TSPM and house church clergy and suggested that legal acceptance of house churches would lead to more balanced, transparent training of house church leaders. Secrecy and suspicion on both sides had made the issue unnecessarily sensitive, Yu added, calling on the government to initiate dialogue so that tensions could be resolved.
“I think we have reason to use Christianity to advance the democratization of China,” Yu said in closing.
Government Seminar on House Churches
A summary of Yu’s findings was presented at a government seminar on “Christianity and Social Harmony – Special Session on the Chinese House Church,” organized by the China State Council Development Research Center on Nov. 21-22, 2008.
The seminar was the first of its kind organized by the government, and some house church leaders were encouraged by the move. But shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the Chinese Federation of Christian House Churches on grounds that it lacked proper registration.
Studies had shown that there were 10 times as many unregistered Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as registered ones, and that NGOs run by house churches had played a significant role in relief work after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.
In a commentary on “Religious Demography and House Churches” that appeared online in February, scholar Yantao Bi said the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in banning the Federation, had become “the third major force along with public security bureaus and the department of religion in repressing house churches,” and that a large sector of civil society had now been defined as illegal.
The November seminar resulted in a new crackdown on house churches in December, Yantao said, but it at least stimulated discussion on the issue.
A second meeting on Dec. 1, 2008, organized by Beijing academic Dr. Fan Yafeng, brought together only a group of NGO representatives to discuss issues relating to house church identity in China, according to a Voice of America report in January. The meeting was later mistakenly portrayed in international media as being authorized by the Chinese government.
Participants had intended to “indirectly pass our opinions to the government and appeal for a legal identity for the house church,” Wang Shuangyan, a Beijing house church leader, told Voice of America in January. “It’s true, the government has not responded. But this is our attitude – we will not give up on negotiation and legal identity.”
Said another participant who requested anonymity, “We hope that, through discussions on the relationship between the house churches and the government, we will impact future policy on religion.”
More raids over the past month illustrate what scholar Yu described as a confused approach to religion, with authorities leaving some house churches to operate openly while other churches were specifically targeted for arrests and closure.
On June 24, police released house church leaders Liu Caili and Huang Shumin of the Taochuan Village church in Shaanxi province after 10 days of detention for engaging in “illegal religious activities,” while a third leader, Xu Fenying, was released on June 19 after five days of detention, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.
Police had arrested the leaders at their homes or places of business on June 14; all three were shown in handcuffs on a local television broadcast. Earlier, on June 5, authorities declared the church closed after Christians advocated for justice on behalf of peasants in the village.
Authorities in Langzhong city, Sichuan province on June 20 released 18 house church leaders arrested on June 9. Police had initially arrested a total of 30 house church leaders who had gathered at the church of Pastor Li Ming, but 12 were released later that same day.
On June 14, officials from the Zhengzhou Municipal Bureau of Religion and Bureau of State Security forcibly interrupted services of the Rock house church in Zhengzhou City, Henan, CAA reported. Officials occupied all the rooms and took video footage and photos of those present, before detaining six Christians, including pastor Dou Shaowen and his wife Feng Lu.
Officials also read out a public notice from the local Ethnic Religious Affairs office stating that, “it has been found through investigation that Dou Shaowen, Feng Lu and other individuals who call themselves missionaries have established a site for religious activities without approval … where they engage in illegal religious activities … Dou Shawen, Feng Lu and others are hereby ordered to immediately stop all the illegal religious activities at this site.”
Church members insisted on finishing their worship service even after officials cut off the electricity supply. Officials then sealed off the building and declared the Rock church abolished.
Finally, on June 4, authorities began disrupting services of the Autumn Rain church in Chengdu, Sichuan province, preventing members from entering their rented facilities for Sunday worship, according to CAA. On June 21, as church members gathered for a conference in a nearby hotel, at least 10 police officers entered the building and called the meeting to a halt. Officer Huang Wei then read out a statement declaring Autumn Rain Church to be an “unregistered social organization,” making it subject to administrative penalties such as the confiscation of church property and the cessation of all church activities.
Church members had initially planned to continue the conference on the banks of a nearby river, but this proved impossible as approximately 100 riot police and plainclothes officers were deployed both inside and outside the hotel.
Autumn Rain church has decided to continue holding services, appeal the imposed penalties and publicly apply to register the church at the Chengdu Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs, in the hope that this may resolve ongoing difficulties with local authorities.