Chinese Government’s Harassment of Early Rain Covenant Church
Police officers in Chengdu, China, detained Pastor Wang Yi and 200 members of Early Rain Covenant Church over the weekend as they prepared to gather for a service commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. All were released within 24 hours—but the arrests and crackdown on one of China’s most influential house churches raised alarms over the Xi Jinping regime’s growing efforts against Christians.
The magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008 killed about 87,600 people, left millions homeless, and became a “sensitive” topic after more than an estimated 5,000 schoolchildren died as shoddy classrooms collapsed on top of them during the quake. Many blamed corruption and mismanagement by local officials that led to the construction of substandard school buildings, as structures around the schools remained intact after the quake. In response, the Chinese government silenced critics, banned newspapers from mentioning the issue, and stifled unapproved commemorations—like Early Rain’s service.
After the May 12, 2008, earthquake, house churches from all parts of China sent teams to help in the relief effort, which began a movement of Christian charities, as organizations provided aid, rebuilt houses, and planted churches. Wang, who at the time was not yet a full-time pastor, helped coordinate church teams that poured into the region to help earthquake victims.
Wang points to the earthquake as the moment he decided to leave his job as a law professor and go into full-time ministry, helping to grow his house church into one of the most influential in the country. With his background in constitutional law, Wang publicly speaks out about the government’s illegal treatment of churches and is often detained on “sensitive” dates such as May 12 or June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet not all threats to the church come from the outside: Last year, the church underwent a difficult church split due to differences in personality and vision within the church leadership.
At 11 p.m. the night before the Saturday morning memorial service, local public security officers showed up at Wang’s doorstep to inform him that Early Rain’s service was illegal. Referring to the new “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” a police officer noted that Early Rain could not set up religious venues or hold religious actives without government permission.
“Then come tomorrow and do whatever you are going to do according to the laws,” Wang responded calmly, according to a cell phone video of the exchange recorded by his wife. “We will still meet tomorrow. Feel free to arrest us. … We will safeguard our legal rights according to the laws: applying for petitions and administrative review, and filing lawsuits.”
Immediately afterward, a plainclothes police officer showed up with a subpoena for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for Wang’s posts online and brought him to the local police station for questioning. Police also detained Li Yingqiang, another church leader.
The next morning at 7:30, church members showed up to attend a prayer meeting at the church only to find dozens of police officers blocking the entrance of the office building where the church meets. According to Early Rain’s Facebook page, which updated the situation throughout the day, police carted 30 congregants off to the local station in police cars.
Yet congregants continued to arrive for the 9:30 a.m. memorial service. In total, police detained more than 200 church members, including children and the elderly. Police entered the church building, temporarily confiscating 15,600 Christian books and Bibles, as well as more than 900 CDs. As congregants stood outside the church singing “Amazing Grace,” police confiscated many of their phones to keep them from posting the scene online. Even the monitor of the Early Rain Facebook page—inaccessible inside China without a virtual private network—was taken away in handcuffs for sharing what was going on with the outside world.
By Saturday night, police had released Wang, Li, and nearly all of the church members. Wang sent out a message saying he had finished writing Sunday’s sermon, titled “The Way of the Cross, the Life of the Martyr,” at the police station. He praised his church members for their courage amid persecution: “I am grateful for you because we did not try to retreat, hide, or escape from the coming of this day, but we welcomed it with praise and zeal.”
Saturday, May 12, was the 10th anniversary of China’s deadly earthquake that took the lives of more than 70,000 people when whole towns and villages were crushed in China’s Sichuan province. So this was a time of renewed mourning for hundreds of thousands who lost family and friends. But it was also marked by escalating levels of persecution by the Chinese government against the church–including the arrest and detainment of my friend and partner in the gospel, pastor Wang Yi.
He was planning to have a memorial service at his church, Early Rain Covenant Church on Saturday morning in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province. But on Friday night, police detained Wang Yi and the head of their Christian college for about 24 hours, until Saturday night. The charge against him by the police was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” –often used now to silence any dissent against the Chinese government.
The Communist Party was concerned that any public gatherings on Saturday might rekindle widespread angry questions about why so many new buildings, including new schools, collapsed in the earthquake killing thousands of adults and children. Instead, the Chinese government was using the date to praise China’s rapid reconstruction of the devastated towns and villages.
On Saturday morning more than 50 police returned to arrest and take away more than 200 people, including college students and children, who arrived for the memorial service. The people were taken in buses to several police stations around the city. The police also raided their church and school to remove Christian books (estimated 50,000 books) from their library and documents from their offices. After loading everything in boxes they took them away in large trucks.
I was reminded of the bible verse: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one (Heb. 10:34).”
Persecution is not new to Wang Yi, who is also a highly respected intellectual and human rights lawyer—with articles about him in New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, World Magazine, etc. He has been an outspoken advocate for human rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. So, he has had many run-ins with Chinese government officials.
The increased government restrictions on churches under president Xi, beginning in February 2018, were expected by Wang Yi and others to increase persecution. After he was released from custody on Saturday morning, Wang Yi acknowledged these new levels of heightened persecution, saying “The religious case of the Early Rain Covenant (church) has begun.”
Some understandably ask, “Why would Wang Yi continue to take this kind of public stand for justice and human rights when he knows the inevitable consequences of persecution?” And, “Knowing this kind of response from the government was likely, why did he continue to plan this assembly by his church members yesterday?”
Imagine asking Martin Luther King Jr. the same questions. King believed God was calling him to take a stand in his generation for justice and human rights. He knew the price of suffering that he and many others would experience. He also knew that if he and others were not willing to take such a stand, the public was unlikely to know and his nation was unlikely to change. The New York Times article on the persecution of Wang Yi and his church yesterday raised worldwide awareness. I’m reminded of the famous adage, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:10-12).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together.” 1 Corinthians 12:26
The apostle Paul reminds us how we should see such suffering of other Christians, when he writes: “If one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor 12:26a).” So, please pass on this prayer request to others. Thank you for your continued prayers for our dear brothers and sisters being persecuted in China.
For the King!
PS: Here’s the link again to the New York Times story on this yesterday: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/12/world/asia/china-pastor-detained-sichuan-earthquake.html And you can read more about Pastor Wang Yi and other key leaders in the underground (unregistered) church movement in China in Ian Johnson’s book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.