The Magazine


Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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.