World News

Chinese Police Detain Prominent Pastor and More Than 100 Protestants

Posted December 10, 2018 10:05 a.m. EST

Chinese police have detained one of the country’s most prominent Protestant pastors along with more than 100 members of his independent congregation, the latest sign of a growing crackdown against what the government perceives as illegal or foreign-influenced religious activity.

Wang Yi, who heads the Early Rain Covenant Church in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, was detained Sunday evening as congregants gathered for services, said members of the church.

“Lord, help us to have the Christian’s conscience and courage to resist this ‘Orwellian nonsense’ with more positive gospel action and higher praise,” the church said in a statement shortly before the members were detained. “Without love, there is no courage.”

More than 100 church members were detained Sunday, according to statements issued by church members. As of Monday morning, police vans were parked outside the high-rise office where the church purchased space. Officers were seen carrying office materials out of the church’s property, which also includes a kindergarten and seminary.

By Monday afternoon, some of the members of the congregation had been released, although some were immediately placed under house arrest, including assistant deacon Zhang Guoqing.

One of the church’s longtime members and member of its advisory council, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared government retaliation, confirmed that church members had been detained. She said it was unclear how long those members were expected to remain in custody but said the situation was serious.

Police in Chengdu referred questions to the city’s propaganda department, which did not immediately respond to faxed requests for comment Monday.

In September, authorities informed the church that it was in violation of the government’s religious policy, according to a copy of the notice posted by church activists on social media. According to Chinese law, only churches, mosques and temples registered with the government and under government control are considered legal. Others are illegal, even though since the early 1980s, official government policy has been largely to tolerate these sorts of places of worship as long as they are apolitical.

More than half of the estimated 60 million Protestants in China worship at churches like Early Rain that are not registered with the government. They are some of the most dynamic congregations in China and widely seen as the fastest-growing religious group in the country.

Early Rain is especially prominent because of the role of Wang. A trained lawyer, Wang was a well-known blogger and film critic, and in the early 2000s was rated by Chinese media as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. In 2005, he converted to Christianity, part of a wave of interest in the religion by politically active Chinese. He started Early Rain and quickly grew in size, and it now has more than 500 members.

In 2006, Wang met President George W. Bush at the White House along with two other prominent Christian activists.

Over the past few years, however, the government has made a nationwide effort to more strictly regulate spiritual life in China, reflecting President Xi Jinping’s drive to exert a tighter control over society. In 2016, it enacted new regulations emphasizing that all places of worship must be controlled by the government and banning foreign ties.

Earlier this year it took other steps, such as banning online sales of the Bible, and seeking a deal with the Vatican to normalize relations. The government has also destroyed churches or removed their steeples and crosses.

Steps against Islam, however, have been even more draconian. Hundreds of thousands of minority Muslims have been sent to internment camps in China’s far western region of Xinjiang while others have been banned from fasting during Ramadan.