Government Interferes With Activities of House Church Networks in Late 2010 and 2011

July 1, 2011

Since late 2010, officials across China have harassed and in some cases detained members of some unregistered Protestant church ("house church") congregations that assemble across multiple congregations in an effort to pressure them to stop meeting. Authorities have harassed and detained members of house church congregations in previous years, but statements from state-controlled media and government sources―coinciding with a broader crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers―suggest that authorities' sensitivities to Protestants who worship outside of state-approved parameters have intensified during this period.

Since late 2010, authorities in locations throughout China have used various means to pressure members of house church congregations that assemble across multiple congregations to stop gathering. These include interrupting gatherings and instructing participants to disperse; placing unregistered Protestants under "soft detention," a form of unlawful home confinement; and blocking access to sites of worship. For example, according to the ChinaAid Association (CAA) (30 January 11, in Chinese) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) (31 January 11, in Chinese), on January 30, 2011, public security officials in Beijing pressured members of two unregistered churches, the Sheng'ai Fellowship and Zhu'ai Fellowship, to cancel a planned joint worship gathering. Officials reportedly took into custody several members of the two congregations, including Liu Fenggang, Liang Jinglu, and Wang Ling, and confined several members to their homes, including Gao Hongming, Hu Shigen, Yang Jing, Xu Yonghai, and He Depu. Sources do not indicate if they were released, although an April 23, 2011, CAA article (in English) notes that authorities took Liu Fenggang into custody in April as he traveled from Beijing to Hebei province. In another example, according to CAA (4 March 11, in Chinese; 7 March 11, in English) and RFA (6 March 11, in Chinese; 10 March 11, in Chinese), on March 4, 2011, officials from Suqian city, Jiangsu province, detained unregistered pastor Shi Enhao after he preached at a house church gathering. The officials reportedly instructed him not to travel away from his residence during the March meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a time when officials have typically tightened restrictions on activists and others. Shi is reportedly a vice president of the Chinese House Church Alliance (CHCA), which associates with unregistered Protestant congregations in multiple provinces.

Domestic and International Law

Official interference with worship gatherings, "soft detention," and prevention of access to sites of worship appear to contravene provisions in international law that protect religious practice and peaceful assembly, such as Articles 18 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 18 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not yet ratified. In at least one recent case, local authorities reportedly cited China's Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) as a basis for stopping the religious activities of a house church congregation with connections to the CHCA. According to a February 1, 2011, RFA report (in Chinese), an official from the Jianhu County Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau, Yancheng city, Jiangsu province, told RFA that the unregistered Zhongzhuang Church―located in Jianhu―had engaged in an "illegal evangelical event" and that authorities had investigated and dealt with the situation in accordance with the RRA (public security officials and ethnic and religious affairs officials in Jianhu blocked access to the building where members of the church had been meeting). According to CAA (31 January 11, in Chinese), the Zhongzhuang Church leader, pastor Zeng Zhengliang, is also an "important" member of the CHCA. Article 3 of the RRA stipulates that "[t]he State, in accordance with the law, protects normal religious activities, and safeguards the lawful rights and interests of religious bodies, sites for religious activities and religious citizens." However, the RRA excludes unregistered religious groups from the limited state protections that it offers, leaving members of house church congregations at risk of harassment, detention, and imprisonment by authorities. Article 12 of the RRA stipulates that "collective religious activities of religious citizens shall, in general, be held at registered sites for religious activities ... ." House church congregations are unregistered religious groups and therefore cannot register sites of worship. Article 12 of the RRA appears to contravene Article 4 of General Comment No. 22 to Article 18 of the ICCPR (available via the Web site of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), which specifies that the freedom to worship extends to the building of places of worship. Members of registered church congregations also are at risk of harassment due to official sensitivities over contact between members of unregistered and registered congregations. For example, according to CAA (29 December 10, in Chinese; 30 December 10, in English), in December 2010, public security officials in Bengbu city, Anhui province, pressured three Protestant congregations―one of which was reportedly a state-sanctioned church congregation―to cancel a joint Christmas service.

Context of the Harassment, Detentions, and Interference in Religious Activities

For years, the Chinese government and Communist Party have interfered in the religious activities of members of Protestant house church congregations that assemble across multiple congregations, but the context of recent cases of harassment, detention, and interference suggests that authorities' sensitivities have intensified toward members of unregistered Protestant congregations who organize religious activities across congregations. CAA's 2010 Annual Report (31 March 11, in English, via Google) attributes heightened official sensitivities to the announcement of the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and attempts by unregistered Protestants to attend an international evangelization conference in South Africa in late 2010. In addition, cases of interference have continued into the first several months of 2011, during a broader crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers. The Commission has not observed statements from the Chinese government or Communist Party that explicitly link interference in the religious activities of house church congregations to these events or that explicitly acknowledge a concerted effort to target house church networks during this period. However, China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) issued a document on January 24, 2011, (available in Chinese via the SARA Web site) outlining its work in 2011 that calls on authorities to "guide" Protestants who "participate in activities at unauthorized gathering places" (house churches) to worship in state-controlled churches (see a related CECC analysis). An article in China Religion (2010, Issue 1, available in Chinese via the SARA Web site)―an official SARA publication―that summarizes the content of a meeting to discuss SARA's work in 2010 did not mention this policy. A January 24, 2011, SARA report (in Chinese via the SARA Web site), however, states that authorities did make efforts to "guide" unregistered Protestants to worship in state-controlled churches in 2010. In addition, two April 2011 editorials from the Global Times (11 April 11, in English; 26 April 11, in Chinese) warn unregistered Protestant congregations not to overstep state-approved parameters in their religious activities. The Global Times operates under the People's Daily, the official Party newspaper. The April 11 editorial states:

Chinese society attaches great importance to harmony, and those with religious beliefs should adhere even more strongly to this harmony. They should not cause any public disturbances through their own religious activities, which will put them at odds with society.... Those house churches that currently have this tendency should thoroughly reflect on the consequences of their gatherings…. It is said that many intellectuals were present [at the April 10 outdoor gathering of members of the unregistered Shouwang Church]. These people benefit from a [sic] orderly society and should not complain blindly.

The April 26 editorial states:

[House churches] have commonly drifted outside society's original religious management system…. [I]t is difficult to "cut them all with one stroke"… if [the actions of house churches] focus on religious belief and highly value not causing conflict with society, if their actions are low key, it will be easy for [house churches] to be understood.

Selected Examples of Interference

The following are selected examples of official interference in the religious activities of members of house church congregations that assemble across multiple congregations since late 2010, in addition to those discussed above:

  • According to international media reports, every Sunday beginning on April 10, 2011, public security officials in Beijing took into custody members and leaders of the Beijing Shouwang Church―over 160 in one instance, according to the BBC (12 April 11, in Chinese)―in an effort to pressure them to stop meeting. At the time of this writing, authorities had taken Shouwang members into custody in connection with nine outdoor worship gatherings (see a related CECC analysis for more information).
  • According to CAA (10 May 11, in Chinese), the Associated Press (11 May 11, via Yahoo!; 11 May 11, via Washington Post), Deutsche Welle (11 May 11, in Chinese), and RFA (11 May 11, in Chinese) on May 10, 2011, public security officers in Zhengzhou city, Henan province, interrupted a Bible study gathering of members of the CHCA and took into custody 49 people, including Zhang Jili, Zhang Qing'an, Zhang Guangxia, Korean pastor Jin Yongzhe (pinyin name), and Jin's wife Li Sha. According to CAA (16 April 11, in Chinese; 17 April 11, in English; 17 April 11, in Chinese; 23 April 11, in English) and RFA (21 April 11, in Chinese), Zhang Jili, Zhang Qing'an, and Zhang Guangxia were previously detained in April after having contact with CHCA leaders. All but Jin and Li were released as of May 11, according to CAA (11 May 11, in English). According to CAA (26 May 11, in Chinese), authorities had released Jin and Li by May 26.
  • According to CAA (23 April 11, in English), on April 23, 2011, authorities in Chengde prefecture, Hebei province, stopped Henan-based house church leader and pastor Zhang Mingxuan, Zhang's wife Xie Fenglan, and Beijing-based pastor Liu Fenggang as they traveled to Beijing to visit churches for Easter. Zhang reportedly is president of the CHCA. Officials reportedly held Zhang and Xie at a police station in Chengde for several hours before moving them to a hotel in Shijiazhuang city, Hebei, where they remained in custody. No further information regarding their whereabouts is available. Earlier in March, according to RFA (10 March 11, in Chinese), authorities in Henan province had forced Zhang to "travel" away from his hometown of Nanyang city, Henan. Reports do not indicate when he was allowed to return.
  • According to CAA (29 December 10, in Chinese; 30 December 10, in English), in December 2010, authorities in Jiaozhou city, Shandong province, denied a house church access to the site where it had been meeting. The church is led by Zhan Gang, reportedly a vice president of the CHCA.
  • Since November 1, 2010, public security officers in Beijing have prevented Fan Yafeng from leaving his home (see a related CECC analysis for more information). Fan is a prominent legal scholar, religious freedom advocate, house church leader, and director of a non-governmental organization. The CAA 2010 Annual Report states that Fan has played an important role in promoting legal activism among members of house church congregations throughout China.

For more information on conditions for Protestants in China, see Section II―Freedom of Religion in the CECC's 2010 Annual Report.