by Alex Buchan
LONDON (Compass) -- Five house church leaders from the "Born Again" movement of Xu Yongze were arrested at their homes in China's southern Henan province on December 27, 1999. Each was sentenced in February to two years hard labor, according to reliable sources inside the province. Another full-time evangelist -- not with the same movement -- was arrested in Guiyang and also given two years hard labor. Relatives asked that the names of those sentenced be withheld.
According to a house church leader in Tanghe, in southern Henan, "The last six months have been the toughest in years for the house churches. Since the crackdown on Falun Gong, we have experienced vastly increased surveillance and interference."
Another well-placed observer in Shanghai added, "It's the network house church movements that have caught the brunt of the new crackdown -- anyone in the leadership of a well-organized movement that stretches over a number of provinces is under great pressure today." He claimed there was less pressure on the more independent house churches that preserve only informal links with other groups.
House church networks can be huge. Some say Xu's movement runs into the millions across eight provinces. But there is no way of knowing for sure. Mostly based in revival-soaked Henan, the networks tend to be highly disciplined, well organized, with a hierarchical leadership structure -- a combination that frightens the government, which fears all organizations that exist outside official control.
Since the Chinese government was spooked last April by demonstrations by followers of the Chinese folk religion, Falun Gong, a huge campaign against "cults" has been launched in China. Some of the house churches, which ironically fight strongly against cults in their teaching, have been put in the same category as Falun Gong.
A Public Security Bureau source said, "If people will not register, then that makes them a cult for me, because it shows they have something to hide." House churches often refuse to register on the grounds that there should be a separation of church and state -- a distinction not acknowledged in China today.
But not all government officials view religion so negatively. One Public Security Bureau official in Wenzhou said, "We used to say, 'One more Christian, one less Chinese.' But now we say, 'One more Christian, one less criminal'."
Henan is a central province of 91 million people, and estimates of the Christian population there vary from five to 15 million. According to Samuel Lamb, a house church pastor in Guangzhou (Canton), "At any one time, there are hundreds of Christians held in jail all over Henan for evangelizing without permits."
Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service.
Used with permission.