During a house church service in China’s Guangdong province last Sunday, 200 police barged in and arrested more than 100 church members, including children, according to International Christian Concern (ICC).
The raid was a surprise for the 170-member Mount Olivet Church of Foshan City, which has been around for nearly 20 years. Most of the congregants were released after about 10 to 20 hours, but 30 people were kept for more than 24 hours. As of Friday evening, six pastors and elders are still detained.
“We don’t know exactly why they raided our church,” a church member told ICC. “The government does not want us to get together and worship as a church.” A detainment notice left by police claimed the church was conducting an illegal gathering and spreading an “evil cult.”
The Chinese government’s attitude toward house churches varies from city to city, and the southern province of Guangdong has typically been pretty open. Foshan and nearby Guangzhou are two of the most economically prosperous cities in the nation, according to ICC. Church leaders are more accustomed to officials dropping by to break up large events or “have tea,” in which they remind pastors to check the growth of the church. While most house churches are quite small and meet in apartments, some rent or buy offices to accommodate hundreds or even 1,000 people.
But things have changed in the past few months, as the government cracks down on its own Three-Self churches by demolishing crosses in Zhejiang province, an area known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its large number of Christians. After members of the notorious cult the Church of Almighty God killed a woman at a McDonalds in May, government officials started an anti-cult campaign which lumped house churches into the group: Government newspaper Global Times wrote “underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms … the problem is very urgent.” Church of Almighty God believes Jesus will come back as a woman from northern China, and in the past has kidnapped, beaten, and killed Chinese Christians who refuse to join their cult.
Sooyoung Kim, ICC’s regional manager for Southeast Asia, said it appears the Chinese government is trying a different strategy to control the runaway growth of Christianity in China. In the past month, police have raided five or six churches in Guangzhou, and government officials have approached house church pastors across the country urging them to stop gathering and join a Three-Self church. The campaign “makes pastors nervous and the congregation feels scared to go to church,” Kim said. At one house church that received government threats, 30 congregants have stopped attending and joined a nearby Three-Self church.
In July, police stopped a five-year anniversary celebration at Revival Church in Guangzhou and arrested, interrogated, and photographed about 80 people, according to ChinaAid. A month later, authorities shut down a theological seminary for college students in Shenzhen, another city in Guangdong, sources told ChinaAid. The 30 students and four teachers, who were from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Malaysia, were told to return home.
“The trend is that the government is getting more and more strategic about how they deal with house churches,” Kim said. “They don’t want them to grow and they have methods to control it from the inside while on the outside they say ‘We still respect religion.’”
— by June Cheng