China Arrests Five Pastors for Protesting Demolition of Church, Blocks Re-Construction Efforts

Jun 23, 2017 11:58 AM EDT

Chinese authorities have arrested five church leaders who protested the demolition of their church building and blocked all efforts to construct a new place of worship amid worsening human rights abuses in the country.

According to persecution watchdog China Aid, 300 police officers and city and inspectors forcibly demolished Shuangmiao Christian Church-which was under construction in Shangqiu, Henan-on the morning of May 5.

The Communist Party reportedly ordered the church's demolition after labeling it an "illegal structure", and dispatched personnel to search the belongings of the Christians and construction workers. They confiscated phones and other personal property, damaged closets, smashed offering boxes, and stole laptops, money, and jewelry.

Christians who opposed the demolition were beaten and pushed to the ground by officials, who then detained about 40 worshipers.

"The church was completely razed, and a church member likened the scene to the Japanese invasion of China during World War II," notes the report.

A month later, four church leaders - Huang Xiangju, Zhao Wenjing, Guo Chungai, and Lü Yuexia - and the pastor of a neighboring church, Zhang Di, were formally arrested after a month-long detention.

An anonymous member of Shuangmiao Church told China Aid that church members had attempted to gather after the demolition, but were forbidden to do so. Using wood, they tried to construct a temporary meeting place in front of the original church, but officials prevented the meetings.

"We don't have any light, either," the church member said. "The government workers took away the electricity meter and cut off the wires."

China Aid notes that the government also claims that the demolition was a punishment for refusing to pay 4,000 yuan ($588 USD) annually as part of an arbitrary road usage fee imposed by villagers who envy the church's money. However, church members dispute this reasoning, saying they attempted to negotiate with the officials in efforts to remedy this problem prior to the demolition.

China is ranked 39 on Open Door USA's World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution. Freedom House has reported that 100 million people face persecution in China, including Christians of various denominations, with Protestants facing "high" levels of persecution.

Over the past several years, authorities have destroyed church rooftop crosses and churches, leading to clashes with hundreds of congregants. Hundreds of pastors and human rights activists have been arrested for speaking out against the government's treatment of Christians.

The Rev. Erik Burklin of China Partner, which trains Chinese Christian leaders, said that despite such persecution, God is in the business of "changing lives" and "building His Church."

"Like Jesus said to Peter, 'On this rock I will build my church.' When He said that, He said, 'I will build my church.' Not, 'You Christians build my church,' but, 'I will,'" Burklin told Mission Network News.

Burkin shared how one person with the central government donated close to $7.3 million for a new chapel at Union Theological Seminary in the city of Nanjing.

"I was just scratching my head, thinking to myself, 'How in the world is it possible that in China, where Communism still runs the country, a person in the Central Government would donate so that a local school - in this case, the national seminary in China - can finish constructing their chapel?' It's unbelievable," Burklin stated.

Despite the government's best efforts, Chinese citizens continue to embrace Christianity at a dramatic rate.

"Then we met with leaders for dinner that night, and we asked the pastors there, 'How many baptisms did you have last year? How many new converts did you have in your city?' he then gave us an overview of what God is doing in their whole province. He was proceeding to explain to us that they have up to 100,000 new believers on the average every year. ... That's unheard of," Burklin said.