Praying for trouble

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-4-25 23:09:00

By Wang Fanfan and Xuyang Jingjing

On Easter Sunday, April 24,  around 30 members of the Shouwang Church held a prayer service at a square outside the Carrefour Supermarket in Haidian district. But as expected, the police showed up and quickly removed them, the church founder and pastor, Jin Tianming, told AFP.

It was the third time in a row that Shouwang, the largest unregistered house church in Beijing, staged an outdoor service in the area. On April 10, police detained about 170 church members who reportedly tried to hold an outdoor service at the same location. A week later, about 50 were detained for trying to congregate there again, and most people were released within 24 hours, AFP reported.

Some of the participants knew the decision to pray in public could have consequences.

As a longtime member of Shouwang Church, Zhou Ling* was one of those who knew she had a tough decision to make when the pastor asked the worshippers to take part in the bold and possibly risky plan.

In an open letter issued on April 12, the church stated that they would "continue to worship in public until the Lord finds a way for them."

"I know it would be dangerous because our gathering is against regulations. But I trust our pastor and also was curious about it," said Zhou, 28.

The regulations state that any public assembly with a religious focus must be registered and approved by the related governmental departments. The group had no such permission.

Not long before she arrived for the service on April 10, police were waiting for them for hours and immediately took her and 160 other participants into custody for questioning.


While in custody, she was asked about her family, job and her address. She was also required to sign a letter promising to never take part in a public prayer service again.

The following two weekends, Zhou was not there, as she promised the police.

"I know our efforts to win legitimacy have no precedent to follow. So it is inevitably risky. Although I hope to participate in the events that our pastors call on us to, I cannot bear the risk and pressure they entail," she said with sadness.

Now she is concerned that the progressive tactics that church leaders espouse might trigger confrontation with the government and put the very existence of the church in danger. 

Zhou joined a Protestant fellowship in Wudaokou in 2004 that later was incorporated into the Shouwang Church.

Nomadic style

Most of the members are college graduates and they include lawyers, writers, journalists and college professors.

In some ways, Shouwang sees itself as a member in the fight to turn urban house churches into an acceptable form of worship, Zhou said.

The core congregation is about 300 strong and most of them attend the three Sunday services held at the Story Club, a restaurant on the North Third Ring Road that accommodates up to 1,000 people.

According to Zhou, landlords in Beijing are reluctant to rent to Shouwang due to their questionable status. The church had difficulty finding a permanent venue and often moved from one place to the next.

In 2009, the church spent 27 million yuan ($4.1 million) to purchase a space in the Daheng Scitech Mansion, an office building in Haidian. But because of government intervention, they were not able to pick up keys, the church stated in the same open letter issued on April 12.

The management committee of the church decided to take another stance by holding the outdoors service.


It was not Shouwang's first attempt to take the service outdoors.

In November 2009, just before US President Obama's visit in China, Shouwang members staged two services in the snow outside Haidian Park after they were barred from using an indoor space. Due to their bold actions at a sensitive time, Shouwang was allowed to move its service into a theater but they attracted attention from the international media.
Shouwang believes that finding a long-term building or space to call home is an important step toward development of the church. They incorporated three large house church fellowships into one in 2005 and sought legitimate status in 2006, without success, according to the church's online post on April 4. 

After the worshippers were detained on April 10, the management committee said in their open letter that "the public worship shows our uncompromising faith, and the pit you dig in front of the Church of God will become the trap for yourself."

Shaky history

There are about 23 million Protestant Christians in China, or 1.8 percent of the population, according to the Blue Book of Religions 2010 published by Institute of World Religions of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

However, a study by the Rural Development Institute of CASS puts the number of Protestants in China at around 70 million, among which about 40 million worship in house churches.

Until 2003, the government regulation on house churches was tighter. But in recent years, the government has adopted a more tolerant attitude about these types of services, said Shi Hengtan, a religious studies scholar with the institute of World Religion at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Due to Shouwang's defiant show, Shi said it might take a while for them to win official recognition.


Song Jun, a prominent scholar in Protestant theology and a Shouwang pastor, said in a speech in Hong Kong in 2009 that the most important thing that needs to be done to help home churches grow is not to obtain political legitimacy but moral legitimacy, the Hong Kong-based Christian Times reported.

Song emphasized the importance of charitable behavior during the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008, and encouraged the church to maintain dialogue with the government.

"The strong intellectual component of Shouwang was behind the decision to fight for political legitimacy," said Chen Qijia, an associate professor at Renmin University and Chinese Christianity scholar.

"Shouwang has been very transparent in every aspect of their church management," said Chen. "And from my understanding, their motive is not complicated." Shouwang said in their statement the outdoor service was purely religious in nature with no political or human rights motives.

However, making a defiant position against the government during the sensitive time has inevitably added the political connotation to Shouwang's religious service, said sociologist Xia Xueluan.

"By bringing religious activities to the public space, they disrupt social order," said Xia, "And it's questionable what their motives really are, especially during this politically sensitive time."

Throughout history, Christianity flourished only after it earned the trust of the government.

When Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci came to China during the Ming Dynasty, he spent 20 years learning Chinese culture and working to understand Confucianism, and gained the trust of Chinese people and the government, said Shi Hengtan.

But the foreign born religion clashed with the Qing government when the Roman curia forbade Chinese Catholics from worshiping Confucius or their ancestors, enraging and causing emperor Kangxi to ban Christian missions in China.


When missionaries in the 19th century brought Protestantism to China, they also tried to make a connection with the Chinese culture. "By learning the Chinese language, establishing schools and newspapers, Chinese people liked them. And they also enjoyed a relatively good relationship with the government," said Shi.

No institutionalized religions have enjoyed absolute freedom like in the West. Religion has always followed the wishes of the State in Chinese history, Zhuo Xinping, the director of the Institute of World Religion at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in a recent article published in Zongfeng Magazine.

The Chinese government, atheistic by nature, has maintained a policy of managing religious practices based on the Chinese tradition and characteristics, according to Zhuo.

Zhuo said that as a religion with foreign origin, Buddhism successfully incorporated into the Chinese culture by realizing the importance of evolving with the state. But Christianity in general has taken the path of confrontation, he said.

In an age of globalization, Zhuo said religious issues and policies face more scrutiny and tests. The government should also understand the nature of each religion and their development and deal with them with sophistication.

* Zhou Ling is a pseudonym.


House churches

The National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China was established in 1950. The three-self principles are self-governance, self-support and self-propagation. The three-self churches are government sanctioned and were created as patriotic bodies.

House churches first appeared in China in the 1950s in the countryside and were comprised of Christians who disagreed with the three-self churches. They expanded rapidly in the 1990s.

Three types of house churches:

Conventional house churches, not recognized by the government, have no connection with three-self churches; small scale, usually congregate in private homes; only open to a few acquaintances; patriarchic system.

Open house churches: larger congregations, more transparent, believers congregate openly and some build churches.

New emerging urban churches: more independent, usually rent or buy office buildings to hold religious activities and many believers are young urban professionals.

Source: Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of  Social Sciences

Posted in: In-Depth

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