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Chinese Christians Chu Xiaodong and Yu Xingmei spent their 12th wedding anniversary in jail.
Their crime? They showed up for church in China’s capital of Beijing.
They were promptly arrested as the Chinese government’s campaign against the 1,000-member Shouwang Church entered week 13.
Sunday night, the couple were the last two remaining detainees who had not been released by the end of the day, according to ChinaAid, a New York-based advocacy group.
On Shouwang’s Google Buzz social media page, church members kept a running tally throughout the day of who was in police custody and who had been released. When church member Fu Jing was released about 6:30 p.m., one church member wrote, “Fu Jing is out! Praise the Lord! She said that when she was inside and was experiencing a moment of weakness, from outside came the sounds of brothers and sisters singing hymns. Thank you to those brothers and sisters who were there waiting for her!”
“As in previous weeks, those church members who were not under house arrest or had not been detained at the outdoor worship site and still had freedom of movement fanned out across the city to the various police stations where church members had been taken to, bringing them food and water and waiting outside until the detainees were released,” reported ChinaAid.
For three months, Chinese police have mobilized each weekend to prevent the congregation from meeting. In April, the church announced that services would move to a public park after the government pressured its landlord to stop allowing the congregation to meet in his restaurant.
This has happened before. Earlier church members had raised $4 million to purchase the floor of a high-rise building, but officials intimidated the seller into refusing to turn over the keys — although he was allowed to keep the church’s money. In November, faced with nowhere to meet, the congregation had services in a park — during a snowstorm.
In the three months since the latest confrontation began, the church’s leaders have been under house arrest. Several have lost their jobs. Pastor Jin Tian Ming has been unable to leave his home since Easter.
Each Sunday, police turn out in force, arresting any church members who show up at the park to worship.
Church members are held for up to 48 hours without charging them, but officials then pressure their employers to fire them and their landlords to evict them from their homes. Other church members have been forced to leave Beijing.
On Sunday, July 3, the police action against Shouwang Church members had started even earlier than in previous weeks.
Authorities were attempting to ensure that nothing be allowed to mar the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1.
“Some Shouwang Church members were put under house arrest as early as Tuesday, as compared with most weeks when church members were confined to their homes starting on Friday evening,” reported ChinaAid.
At least 21 church members were taken into police custody Sunday morning. All but two — the couple celebrating their wedding anniversary — were released by 9 p.m., according to church sources.
The foreign news media has been strong-armed by officials not to cover the weekly arrests. So, photos have been scarce — mostly taken on cellphones and put on the Internet. The Chinese government’s notorious “Great Firewall of China” has even blocked outsiders’ access to those photos.
Even so, photos leaked out of Chu Xiaodong and Yu Xingmei sitting in the park with two other church members shortly before their arrest, then of the couple sitting in a police station singing a hymn as they awaited questioning.
The four were able to gain access to the open-air plaza in northwest Beijing’s Zhongguancun area that has been the church’s designated outdoor worship site since April 10.
In previous weeks, police presence at the plaza was heavy, with police officers ringing the plaza and turning away or detaining anyone who tried to enter the plaza.
On the Internet, church members appealed to Christians worldwide to pray for the congregation. One Shouwang couple appealed on the church’s Google Buzz site for help from other church members because they could not go out to get food or to help an out-of-town family member who had come to Beijing and had nowhere to stay.
One website carried this appeal, “We earnestly ask those in the Body of Christ who are overseas to continue to pray for this brother and his family, that the Holy Spirit might comfort them and help them stand firm in the faith.”
Why the campaign against their church?
“Shouwang remains steadfast in its refusal join the official government-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement or to break up its congregation into smaller meeting groups that the government has seemed willing to tolerate when house churches have grown too large,” says Bob Fu of ChinaAid.
In May, the leadership of 17 other “house churches” petitioned the Chinese government to back off in its campaign against the Shouwang congregation. That petition was ignored.
While religious freedom is outlined in China’s constitution, the only legal Protestant churches in China — the Three-Self Patriotic Movement — are run by the government. Three-Self pastors are paid by the government. No one under 18 is allowed to attend. Sermon topics are mandated by the government.
Churches not under the authority of the Chinese government’s state administration for religious affairs are subject to persecution. Attendees are subject to being arrested.
Chinese Catholic churches must belong to the Patriotic Catholic Association — and must cut all ties to the Vatican or any other Catholics worldwide. As many as 150 million Chinese refuse to participate in the state-run churches, instead belonging to “underground” or “house” churches — both Protestant and Catholic. Their leaders are routinely arrested. Many have spent years in prison.