From the externals, you couldn't have guessed that the gathering was in any way remarkable. The dozen or so participants came one by one, over several days, to a spacious, sparsely furnished suburban house in one of China's most populous provinces. Most of them were men, in their forties or older. They were dressed in simple slacks or shorts, with well-worn open-necked shirts and sandals. Several carried cell phones, the ubiquitous sign of serious business in China. Only the presence of two American reporters was unusual. We had come to observe the deliberations of seven key evangelical leaders and their assistants, representing by their estimate some 15 million Chinese Christians.

The seven had come together out of desperation. Despite China's increasing openness in the last 20 years, the repression of religious believers has not abated. In particular, Protestant Christians who spurn government-approved congregations and meet instead in private "house churches," known collectively as the "house church," are continually threatened. Indeed, these leaders confirmed that repression is worse now than at any other time since the vicious campaign against "spiritual pollution" in 1983-84. In parts of China, it is more intense now than at any other time since the last years of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s.

As a result, these leaders, for the first time ever, chose to speak out, addressing their own government and the world, using their own names, and allowing themselves to be photographed for publication in the West. After two days of prayer and discussion, they drafted a "United Appeal of the Chinese House Church" and asked that it be given the widest circulation in China and beyond.

The appeal -- of which a slightly abbreviated text appears nearby -- calls on China's government to take cognizance of the growth of evangelical Protestantism in recent decades, to release all Christians imprisoned for their faith, to begin a dialogue with house-church leaders, to stop harassing the house church, and to cease using terms like "evil religion" and "cult" to designate orthodox Christian believers simply because they won't join the official church.

"This is the first time that we have talked openly," said Zhang Rongliang, 48, a long-established leader of the Fang Cheng Fellowship. Several million strong, this group takes its name from the county in Henan province where Zhang preaches. "We have been persecuted so long that we have to fight [as if this were] the last fight," he says. "Even if it is getting worse, we would like people in the outside world to know that we are holding on to our faith."

Zhang, who never finished elementary school, has had firsthand experience of persecution. A Christian since the age of 12, he was first arrested in 1974 and jailed for six years on the charge of "counterrevolution under the guise of religion." His actual offense: evangelizing the peasantry and organizing new Christians into churches that refused to cooperate with China's official Protestant church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), so named because it is independent of foreign missionaries and thus supposedly self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-managing.

In prison, Zhang was handcuffed and beaten with sticks and the stock of a gun to force him to deny his faith in writing. He didn't give in. Arrested again in 1990, he was tortured by guards who stood on his legs, stretched wide apart. He was also beaten with a rubber nightstick. Since another 14-day arrest in 1994, Zhang has combined two lives: that of a fugitive, keeping one step ahead of China's Public Security Bureau, and that of a minister, traveling with other Christian leaders to as many as 20 provinces on leadership and training missions for the church. His only means of communicating with other Christians and family members is a cell phone, which he quickly replaces when any of his house-church contacts is arrested.

Others of the leaders had similar tales. Shen Xianfeng, 41, of the China Gospel Fellowship, also based in Henan, has rheumatoid arthritis and walks with crutches. During one stint with 30 other Christian leaders in Henan's Xinyang Re-education Through Labor Camp, guards beat him with his own crutch. He was released from prison last February only after fellow Christians and family members forked over some $ 135, and he has been on the run ever since. Other Christians told of being beaten up in prison by other inmates on orders from prison guards or tortured by electric shock. A particularly vicious device used against Christian prisoners in China, as well as against Tibetan Buddhists and other dissidents, is what the Chinese call dian bang ("electric stick"), an electrified police baton designed to inflict pain and terror.

But the repression doesn't seem to be accomplishing its purpose. One Christian leader, who belongs to the "Born Again" house-church group (numbering possibly 2-3 million), said simply, "The Chinese house churches have been persecuted for a long time. Every time we are not defeated, we grow stronger."

The current crackdown on house-church Christians has been underway for at least four years, since Communist authorities became worried about the rapid growth in the number of zealous Christians deep in the countryside. One fear voiced in both the official press and internal party documents in the early 1990s was that Christian activity might generate opposition to the regime and eventually undermine Communist rule in China, as it did in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Another concern was that China might fall victim to another religion-based peasant rebellion like that of the Taipings, who nearly overturned the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century, or the Boxers, defeated only after a 55-day siege of Peking in 1900. What especially irritates the authorities in Beijing is the house church's independence.

In 1995, a year after the enactment of strict new regulations requiring registration of all Christians, a tough-minded atheist, Ye Xiaowen, was put in charge of the Religious Affairs Bureau, the party-controlled agency responsible for supervising religious activity in China. The country's president, Jiang Zemin, told a meeting of the Religious Affairs Bureau in 1995, "We are engaged in a secret struggle against the church." Ye himself, in June 1997, described unregistered house churches as "evil, illegal organizations that undermine social order." U.S. officials believe that Ye, whose attitude toward religion may have been reinforced by a tour of duty in Tibet, is digging in his heels with the support of other senior party hardliners, despite signs in other areas of Chinese life of a cautious opening up to political reform.

Underlying Beijing's uncertainty about how to deal with the country's fervent Protestant community is its astonishing growth of the house church in the last two decades; officials of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement say that the increase may have been tenfold in certain regions. In official documents, Communist party officials often express bitterness about what is happening. "In our opinion, the scope of illegal religious activities in our town is increasing rapidly, the spread is getting wider and wider, there are more and more people taking part," griped a party screed about Protestant evangelism in the town of Hua Dou in Guangdong province last June.

Actual figures are impossible to verify. By government estimates, some 10 million Chinese belong to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But the number of Protestants who refuse to have anything to do with any government organization is far larger -- estimates range from 20 to 80 million. Officials in Beijing say that some 4 million Chinese belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association, a party-supervised church set up in the 1950s to control Roman Catholics. In addition, there may be as many as 8 million underground Catholics loyal to Rome.

The Christian surge in China became evident in the late 1970s. After Mao Zedong's death and with the ascendance of reformer Deng Xiaoping in 1976, social controls all over China relaxed. Among others, long-imprisoned pastors and evangelists were allowed to go home, and when they got there, they trained young followers and sent them out in turn as itinerant evangelists all over China. The house-church movement took off, entirely outside official channels; it operated on the principle that, as one itinerant evangelist in Zhejiang province put it, "believers absolutely cannot be controlled by non-believers." Preachers taught a dynamic and radical faith modeled on Biblical accounts of early Christianity. Said Zhang Rongliang, "The Chinese church is like the Book of Acts. Things are still very backward here. The meetings sometimes last all day, and the shortest ones are around three hours long."

Though it is impossible for an outsider to verify the reports of miraculous healings associated with certain preachers, they are so widespread that Communist-party officials have publicly complained about them. The authorities are also made nervous by evangelical preaching not tailored to the restrictions imposed on the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Though often sincere Christians, TSPM pastors are obliged to keep their preaching generic, mainstream Protestant. They are specifically forbidden to discuss issues like abortion, for example, and are discouraged from bringing up politically incorrect teachings such as the Second Coming of Christ incompatible with Marxism. By contrast, house-church evangelists wander all over China preaching the Gospel as boldly as they can.

For this audacity, house-church leaders pay the heavy price that we have noted. More than three quarters of the house-church activists encountered on a 10-day reporting trip to five Chinese cities said that they would be immediately arrested if they were spotted by police. One leader from Henan Province said that some 30 of his fellow prisoners in Xinyang Re-education Through Labor Camp were Christians imprisoned for unauthorized evangelism.

Prodded by members of Congress, President Clinton finally raised the issue of China's persecution of Christians during President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington in November 1997. In response, Jiang agreed to receive a White House-sponsored delegation last February. It consisted of three clerics: National Association of Evangelicals president Don Argue, Catholic bishop Theodore E. McCarrick, and New York rabbi Arthur Schneier. Chinese officials, including Jiang, received them politely and listened to requests to free imprisoned Protestants and Catholics named by the delegation.

But the persecution continued. One development that seems to have spurred the house-church leaders to issue their public appeal was the intensification of arrests and persecution after President Clinton's summit visit to China in June 1998. Zhang Rongliang explained, "The American government put pressure on China, and the Chinese government got angry and decided to crack down on Christians."

That assertion may reflect an oversimplified view of Chinese politics, but its urgency should not be dismissed. The Christian leaders we met with implored us to ensure that their appeal reached the highest levels of government in China and outside as soon as possible.

It did. Just as she set off for China two weeks ago, U.N. human-rights commissioner Mary Robinson was given the house-church appeal both in the original Chinese and in English translation. Robinson's visit is connected with China's agreement to sign the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights next month -- a public affirmation by Beijing that China takes human rights seriously. Whether this paper commitment has any substance, time will show. Certainly, words can have tremendous power. China's house-church Christians may not gain respite from the current crackdown soon. But by speaking out, and by putting their names and faces on the line, they have demonstrated a kind of courage, that, if history be any guide, can have a lasting impact on their country.

David Aikman, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is a veteran foreign correspondent.

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