By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)– Chinese authorities released two key leaders of the country’s underground house church movement from a forced labor camp and prison before their detention terms expired, but elsewhere security forces launched a massive crackdown on worship services and Christian students, an American advocacy group said Thursday, December 4.
Pastors Zhu Baoguo and Wang Weiliang were freed for “medical reasons,” amid mounting international pressure, said US-based China Aid Association (CAA), which has been closely involved in supporting the Christians.
Zhu, of Henan province, was reportedly freed from a labor camp on Tuesday, December 2, while serving a one-year sentence “reeducation through labor” for being an “evil cult leader,” CAA said.
Zhu was first detained on October 12 this year with four other leaders during a meeting in Dushu village, near the city of Nanyang, Christians said. The four leaders reportedly received four days of “administrative detention” but Pastor Zhu was then sentenced to one year forced labor.
Fellow Christian Wang Weiliang was already released on “medical parole” on November 25, allowing him to leave prison “over one year” early to receive care in a local hospital in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, CAA added. He received three years in prison in December of 2006 for protesting the destruction in July that year of the Dangshanwan Christian Church building in the town of Xiaoshan in Zhejiang. Six other Christians who received lighter sentences were already freed, the group explained.
However, CAA said, another Christian believer, “Shen Zhuke, sentenced with Wang Weiliang, is still in prison in the western suburb of Hangzhou after more than two years [and] serving a three and a half year sentence. And, members of Dangshanwan Christian Church have still not been able to legally rebuild their church building since its destruction.”
CAA said the release of the Christians came amid international pressure, especially from the US State Department and direct intervention from the American embassy, “as well as prayers from all over the world.” However their release was overshadowed by reports of a massive arrests of house church Christians, including many Christian students.
CAA said it “has learned that a large number of house church Christians have been arrested in both Henan and Shandong provinces.” In the latest known incident Wednesday, December 3, police in Tai Kang county of Henan province, reportedly detained over 50 house church Christians gathering for worship at a private home. “So far, none have been released,” CAA explained in a statement monitored by BosNewsLife.
A day earlier, dozens of other house church Christians gathering in Zaozhuang city of Shandong province were surrounded by officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB), one of China’s main law enforcement agencies, Christians said. CAA said over 20 Christian leaders were arrested. PSB officers reportedly offered to free them in exchange for 2,500 yuan ($363) per person. It was not immediately clear Thursday, December 4, when and if the fines were paid.
In addition, CAA said its investigation revealed that from the end of September to early November 2008, a large police force raided house gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province. “More than 400 Christian college students were arrested and interrogated. House church leaders who led the gatherings were detained, and four were sentenced to re-education through labor for one to one and a half years,” CAA added. The four Christians were identified as Ye Xi Lou, who was sentenced to 1 year, and Wu Fang Liang, Zhang Ye Gen and Chen Fang Tu, who reportedly received each 1.5 years imprisonment
The house church members were accused of “preaching to students” and “engaging in cult activities,” CAA said.
The targeted church groups were apparently all affiliated with the Local Church network founded by known Christian leader, Witness Lee, who died in 1997. “It is believed that this large-scale suppression by the Chinese authorities against the Christian college students in Beijing and Hangzhou is a part of the government’s efforts to limit citizens’ religious freedom after the Olympic Games,” CAA said.
Chinese officials have strongly denied any wrongdoing, saying Christians are free to worship in the state-backed churches. However many of China’s Christians, up to 130 million according to some estimates, prefer to worship outside state control, Christian leaders say.
CAA said it has urged authorities to “stop the harassment of house church Christians, return illegally confiscated funds and personal property, and immediately release the four church leaders who have been sentenced to re-education through labor.” (With BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).