A church in China’s Shaanxi Province has expressed concerns for the wellbeing of its three leaders, who have been held in secret detention over fraud allegations since August 2022.
In an open letter published by Xi’an Church of Abundance (‘Fengsheng’) on 4 January, family members revealed that they had received no news about Pastor Lian Changnian, his son Pastor Lian Xuliang and co-worker Ms Fu Juan, who are currently being held in ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL). Police in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, have denied all three access to their lawyers on the grounds that they are suspected of ‘endangering national security.’
Before the arrests in August 2022, Xi’an Church of Abundance issued a statement in which Pastor Lian Changnian described how the church started 30 years ago and local police had been harassing its members in recent weeks in an attempt to coerce them into accusing church leaders of ‘fraud’ or ‘spreading an evil cult.’
Since March 2021, the Chinese authorities have detained at least 24 unregistered Protestant church leaders and workers on suspicion of fraud, including 17 from two churches in the single city of Linfen in Shanxi Province. As of today, 17 remain in pre-trial detention.
Linfen Covenant House Church (‘Shengyue Jiayuan’) was raided by more than 100 police officers during an outdoor family event in August 2022. The authorities placed both church leaders, Li Jie and Han Xiaodong, under RSDL detention on suspicion of fraud. They even detained Mr Li’s wife Li Shanshan at the same time, leaving their two young children without parental care. In a prayer update in August, Early Rain Covenant Church, another unregistered church, described the raid as showing ‘blatant disregard for the law, cruelty and mercilessness’, which has ‘increasingly become a common feature in church crackdowns.’
Mrs Li was released on bail in September but both Mr Li and Mr Han have since been formally arrested. Police have continued to harass other church members and pressured them to write reports on their leaders. In October, church co-worker Ms Wu Tingting was taken into RSDL detention for alleged fraud. In early November, Wang Qiang became the fifth member of the church to be taken into RSDL detention over the same allegations. While Ms Wu was later released on bail, Mr Wang was formally arrested in December. His heavily pregnant wife was forced to look after their young child alone.
Xi’an Church of Abundance was officially banned by the authorities two days after its leaders had been taken by police. In November, Linfen officials announced that they had shut down Linfen Covenant House Church and its church school.
According to human rights lawyer Zhang Kai, the Chinese government’s prosecution of house church leaders for receiving tithes and offerings is based on this logic: ‘If a church is not registered with the government, it is illegal, which means the pastor is fake, which means tithes and offerings they receive are fraudulent.’
Another house church in Linfen, Golden Lampstand Church, used to be one of the country’s largest Protestant churches until the local authorities demolished its building using dynamite in 2018. It was raided during a baptismal service in August 2021, after which police detained Pastor Wang Xiaoguang, his wife Pastor Yang Rongli and ten of their co-workers. Although five of them were later released on bail, seven were formally charged with fraud in March 2022, including Pastors Wang and Yang. They have yet to be tried in court. This is the second incarceration for the couple; they were jailed for three years and seven years respectively in 2009, for ‘illegally occupying farmland’ and ‘assembling a crowd to disturb traffic order.’
Chen Lijun, a house church preacher in Luanchuan County, Henan Province, has also been criminally detained since August 2022 for alleged fraud after purchasing a small number of Christian books from an online store. In addition, he received a fine of 100,000 yuan (approx. GBP £12,000).
Elsewhere, Pastor Hao Zhiwei’s appeals against her fraud conviction and eight-year sentence were rejected by a court in Ezhou in Hubei province after a second trial on 12 December. In Guizhou province, elder Zhang Chunlei of Guiyang Love (‘Ren’ai’) Covenant Church is awaiting a verdict after a court hearing on charges of fraud and ‘inciting subversion of state power’ on 29 November. In Sichuan province, two elders Hao Ming and Wu Jiannan of Deyang Green Pastures (‘Qingcaodi’) Church have been detained since November 2021. In December, they were also formally charged with fraud and reportedly face more than 10 years in jail.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: ‘It is alarming to see such a large number of pastors, preachers and church staff members detained and jailed by the Chinese government using coercive means to encourage false fraud charges against them. We renew our calls on the Chinese government to stop the targeting of religious communities for practising their religion, and to release all house church leaders and members who have been detained or jailed on spurious charges. China must guarantee detainees access to legal counsel of their choice and end the practice of RSDL, which has been recognised by the UN as a form of forced disappearance. We also call on the international community to maintain intense scrutiny on the situation of human rights and freedom of religion or belief in China, raising awareness of the government’s severe persecution against unregistered religious groups.’
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