Shouwang Church, one of the thousands of illegal unregistered churches across China, has found itself in the spotlight as the world debates China's limits on religious freedom. Churches in China are legal only if they registered with the government, which then often puts limits on their ability to grow and evangelize. The government also has blocked attempts by Shouwang to meet indoors.
The church, which reportedly has around 1,000 members, saw its pastor, pastor's wife and other members arrested in broad daylight Sunday morning, April 10, when it attempted to hold an outdoor worship service on a public space in Beijing. The members were put on buses and taken to a local elementary school, where police took their personal information. Much of the incident was captured on video. It was one of the largest crackdowns in recent history, observers say, with upwards of 1,000 police involved.
The church, which is Protestant, has repeatedly attempted to purchase or rent property, only to see the Chinese government get involved and pressure various owners/landlords not to give the church any keys.
As of April 11, most of the members were released but Pastor Li Xiaobai and his wife were still being detained.
"The position of the church remains the same. We will persist in holding outdoor gatherings until the Lord finds a way out for us," the church said in a statement posted on the website of ChinaAid, a group that monitors religious freedom in the country. "... We don't know how long the fight before us will last. We can only beg God to have mercy on our weakness. We call on brothers and sisters, whether from Shouwang Church or from churches throughout China and even from the rest of the world, to go before God with fervent prayers that He lift up His church."
The church said it believes the "best way to resolve the issue" is for the Chinese government to allow the church to "enter the property it has purchased," which it says would be "the beginning of positive interactions between church and state." It also said the worship service was "purely an act of religious worship" and that it had nothing to do with "any political activities."
The statement also released new details about the arrests. Police, the church said, had sealed off the area with police tape the morning of the service.
"Police officers were deployed everywhere, and police vehicles were parked at many intersections," the church said. "Just before 8:30 a.m., the time set by the church, several dozen brothers and sisters at the southwestern side of the square tried to start their worship service, but they were quickly surrounded by a large number of police officers who put them on waiting buses that took them to the nearby Caihefang Elementary School. At the school, they were divided into groups according to their home addresses and the groups were put into different classrooms where they were interrogated and their personal details taken down."
Those who weren't arrested, the church said, tried to worship elsewhere, with one group meeting at a KFC restaurant.
"The KFC group was just finishing their worship service when police swarmed in, put them on buses and took them to Caihefang Elementary School," the church said.
The church members, although under arrest at the elementary school, still "managed to sing hymns and worship together."
"After 12 p.m., various local police stations and neighborhood committees transferred the brothers and sisters to their respective police stations where the interrogations continued," the statement said. "Some sub-police stations even demanded that they write statements of repentance or guarantees in which they were supposed to promise not to participate in such 'illegal' religious activities. After 3 p.m., the brothers and sisters were gradually released by the local police stations. But at midnight, about 30 people still remained in detention at various local police stations. The church's pastor, elders and several lay leaders went separately to the various local police stations and negotiated with the local police, demanding that they release the brothers and sisters as soon as possible. By the evening of April 11, Pastor Li Xiaobai and his wife were still being detained."
Church members who were at home "were barred from leaving" their houses.
"It is our belief that the worship on April 10 was a worship service of special significance to most of us," the church said. "Because of the Lord's keeping, many brothers and sisters experienced peace in the Lord. Some brothers and sisters felt the oppression of darkness in this experience, and some were even hurt; we ask the Lord to give them special comfort and healing. We believe the church is Christ's church, and Christ is the head of the church. The church ought to honor only our Lord Jehovah as God. There is no other god besides Him. Therefore, the church will never be controlled or manipulated by any external forces; she belongs only to our Lord. What this outdoor worship expressed was our uncompromising position with regard to (the practice of) our faith. Furthermore, we believe that holding on to this faith position is itself a form of worship. Therefore, we believe our outdoor worship is pleasing to the Lord."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. The church's complete statement can be read online at http://bit.ly/h28mkg. Watch the video of the arrest on BBC's China affiliate at http://bbc.in/hj7QVc.
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