The beleaguered Shouwang house church in Beijing celebrated its last outdoor service on Christmas Day. Denied access to a building they had purchased as a worship venue, the church has been meeting outdoors – and facing weekly arrests – since April 10. A source in Beijing told Compass that next year church leaders plan to renew their fight to regain the venue from which the government has blocked the congregation. The source said, “The church would actively pursue realizing the goal of returning to meet indoors after Christmas. And they still believe the best way to resolve the issue is that the government would permit the church to enter into the space it bought.”
According to a Dec. 20 post on Shouwang’s Facebook page, as Christmas approaches the police presence has increased at the plaza where the church has been meeting. In addition many church members were detained at home on Saturday (Dec. 17) to prevent them from traveling to the plaza. Police detained a further 35 either on arrival or on their way to the designated venue.
The members of the church’s governing committee, two pastors and three elders, and other prominent co-workers, have been under house arrest for the whole or much of the time since April 9. In addition, in an effort to avoid similar “Arab Spring” protests in China, government official have detained for periods of time between a few hours and two days hundreds of people, including many Shouwang parishioners as well as members of other churches in Beijing and other cities.
Church leaders said in the Facebook post that they are hoping for a resolution to Shouwang’s dilemma this Christmas. “Today is the day we call all the members of our church to fast and pray for Shouwang,” the post stated. “May God have mercy on his church … and grant us the place for worshipping that He prepared for His church.”
After 20 months of secret detention, the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court ordered Christian human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng to serve what had been a suspended three-year prison sentence – supposedly for violating terms of his probation. This was the first sign in several months that Gao, an outspoken human rights defender and a Christian since 2005, was still alive, despite months of requests for information from family members and international advocacy groups.
The order to serve out his prison sentence came just as the five-year probation period for Gao expired on Dec. 22. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that since Gao had violated the terms of his probation, he would now be required to serve the prison term in an, as yet unnamed, facility. Mainstream press such as The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and The Associated Press scoffed at the notion of Gao “violating” the terms of his probation when police have held him in undisclosed locations, incommunicado, for all but two months of the past three years.
In 2006 Gao was charged with “subverting the power of the state” for defending Christian house church members and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Following an international outcry in 2006, Gao’s sentence was suspended, but he and his family faced constant surveillance and harassment. Police tormented Gao’s wife Geng He whenever she left the house and accompanied Gao’s teenage daughter, Gege, to school. Geng He escaped from China in early January 2009 along with her daughter and son Tianyu, and they were quickly granted political asylum in the United States, according to the China Aid Association (CAA). Less than a month later, government agents abducted Gao, and he simply “disappeared.”
The self-taught lawyer was last seen in April 2010 when police allowed him a brief respite from his secret detention. After speaking with Geng He, WSJ reported that Gao’s family still doesn’t know where he is or which prison he’ll be sent to, although friends and family say that being in prison is better than “being disappeared.”
Father, thank You that Gao Zhisheng is still alive and that his family now has hope to see him once again. We ask that You would cover Gao and his family with grace as they face the difficult days ahead. Please give Gao boldness to stand firm in his faith and share Your love with those around him in prison. The members of the Shouwang congregation need Your grace as they deal with weekly government pressure and the incarceration of many of their leaders, Father. Please strengthen and comfort the detained church members and their families by the power of Your Spirit. Thank You that You are more than able to intervene in this situation. Lord, we ask that You would soften the hearts of the Chinese officials and prompt them to release Gao Zhisheng and return the church building to the Shouwang congregation. Amen.