Chinese pastor sentenced to nearly 6 years for fighting cross removal, CCP oppression

February 20, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

Once again, we’re reminded of the urgent need to pray with the church in China. The sentence for the leader of a large house church was recently handed down. For the next five-and-a-half years, Pastor Li Juncai, will spend his life inside prison walls as a political prisoner. He was also fined 210,000 yuan ($32,423).

Pastor Juncai’s crime? He objected to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) forcible removal of the cross atop Yuanyang County Central House Church in Henan province. He also refused to change a church proclamation: “Love God and people,” to “Love the country.”

Li Chao, Pastor Juncai’s son, contends that CCP authorities fabricated all the charges against his father because he took a retaliatory stand against the state’s demolition of the church’s cross—as well as the CCP’s general oppression of house churches.

The hammer comes down

Yuanyang County Central House Church after the CCP removed the cross from the top of the building and forced the church to fly the Chinese flag. In December 2020, the building was destroyed. (Photo: ChinaAid)

The road leading to Pastor Juncai’s imprisonment started in 2013 when Central House Church  relinquished its status as a government-sanctioned church and merged with a local house church. The congregation grew to be the largest local house church, with 700 to 800 believers and several buildings.

Six years later on February 20, 2019, the Chinese Communist Party arrested Pastor Juncai, charging him with “obstructing government administration,” as well as three church staff leaders, Wu Raoyun, Ban Yun and Ma Yanfang.

The next day, 200 people, including Yuanyang County religious affairs bureau authorities and police, forcibly removed the church’s cross—a practice the Chinese government continues to use as they carry out President Xi Jinping’s focus on nationalism. They didn’t stop there. They went inside, ordering the church to replace “Love your God,”  “Love God and people” and “Love your neighbor” signs with “Love the country.” Finally, authorities forced church members to raise the Chinese flag in front of the church.

A month after Pastor Juncai’s arrest, authorities set bail for the three staff members arrested with him—but the pastor remained in jail. Authorities accused him of embezzlement, obstructing government administration and destruction of accounting records.

At Pastor Juncai’s first hearing in August, prosecutors asked for a prison sentence of six-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half years. The court didn’t issue a verdict. Then in early December 2019, the state secretly brought the hammer down once again.

Some 500 church members watched as the building they had erected in 2008 came crumbling down—on demolition orders from the CCP. They were told to not speak of what they had seen.

One believer told ChinaAid, “Officials from the local Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission, policemen, and urban management officers showed up amidst the more than 500 people who attended church December 6, 2019. Several asked us to join a Three-Self church, but we again refused. After demolishing the church, governmental officials ordered us to keep what happened secret. They blocked information so that only a few people knew about the forced church demolition.”

Reportedly, authorities classified Yuanyang County Central House Church’s building as illegal. Believers in the church, however, reported that the church had obtained all licenses required for building.

One spokesperson said, “We have a land use permit, a construction project planning permit, as well as other legal certificates and a permit for religious sites, all issued by government supervisors. But—the government needs this land.”

Several legal professionals familiar with Pastor Juncai’s case have said, “What Pastor Juncai has done does not constitute a crime. The charges by the authorities against him consist of unclear facts and insufficient evidence.”

top photo: Pastor Juncai before this arrest; Yuanyang County Central House Church after cross forcibly removed and forced to fly China’s flag.
(Photos: ChinaAid)

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A ‘sinicization plan’

Pastor Juncai and the secret demolition of Central House Church are just two of the most recent examples of the CCP’s continuous crackdown on Christianity in China. Numbers vary but some reports indicate thousands of house churches have been shut down or demolished in China.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which Christians believe will worsen conditions. “We anticipate the government will exert even stronger control over all aspects of society for the sake of stability,” Caleb says. “Local churches will have to stay very low-profile and be more adaptive and creative in the way they do meetings and ministries.”

Open Doors CEO David Curry notes the government’s “sinicization” plan to infuse sectors of society with more cultural and party alignment. “The government is trying to force out unregistered churches. Those churches that are registered, they approve sermons, these kinds of things, slowly turning up the heat and making it a ‘Chinese’ church, not a church of Jesus.”

 Julie*, a long-term Open Doors worker and project manager, has witnessed the Chinese government attempt to snuff out the church for three decades. She offers perspective.

“Control of the church has long been high on the political agenda, even though believers are not really interested in politics other than to pray for the country’s leaders. Since 2017, the government has been closing some large churches, monitoring and putting pressure on pastors to limit church growth, and an increasing number of believers meet in small groups.

But she believes this new season of control and fear-mongering can be a catalyst for both growth and hope: “I believe this overwhelming crisis is also an opportunity for the Chinese church to springboard to a new season of revival.

“Now that increasing number of believers meet in small groups, the training of small group leaders who can disciple others has become crucial. It’s like God is re-calibrating the foundations of the church to prepare for a new season of growth.”

An awakening

It is against this backdrop that Open Doors has moved quickly to strengthen the persecuted church through persecution preparedness training, small group discipleship training, youth ministry and youth leadership training, and presence ministry.

Your prayers and support are helping Open Doors provide this practical training to equip believers in China as they prepare for rising persecution. Peony*, the director of Open Doors’ work in China, says, “It is vital that we stand with Chinese believers during this difficult season, to encourage them and strengthen their faith.”

Caleb*, an Open Doors worker, adds, “It is our mission to help the churches rediscover their precious spiritual heritage. We want to see Christians in China stand firm and strong under persecution through God’s grace and power. We want to see a vibrant, persevering church that will not bow to the enemy’s schemes. This is our dream.”

Chinese churches have responded by asking the Open Doors community to journey with them.

“This is an awakening! Thank you so much for this great learning opportunity,” one sister shared after attending training from Open Doors. Her husband had been imprisoned for distributing Bibles in the past, and she experienced persecution on many occasions. “I used to experience a lot of persecution. While my life has become stable, my spirit has become less alert. This training is very timely. It’s time for us to prepare, as persecution is escalating in different areas in China. I will pass on my learning to other brothers and sisters.”

Pray with believers in China

God has given the global Body of Christ the privilege and responsibility to get on our knees and join in fervent prayer around the church in China.

The church in China needs our prayers and encouragement to stand strong. Conversely, we can also learn from these believers who are now risking their lives to stand up for the gospel.

A few months ago, one of Open Doors’ indigenous ministry partners who works to equip church leaders in China offered this insight: “The situation on the ground [in China] is always changing. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about what China needs. Pray for wisdom for the leaders. Pray with us.” She shared specific prayer needs for church leaders and churches in China:

  • Fortitude. Pray with Chinese Christians and church leaders for the fortitude to withstand increasing pressure and violent acts of persecution.
  • Empowerment. Pray that God would empower His church in China to reach the next generation.
  • Wisdom. Pray that leaders in China’s churches would have the wisdom to know how to handle the pressure they are coming under.
  • Workers for the harvest. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers to plant and nurture seeds that will ultimately bring forth an abundance of Kingdom fruit.
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