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.”