Rising persecution in other countries have moved them past China on the 2013 World Watch List, dropping China’s ranking to the 37th position. While the change is also due to growing freedom for the local church in most of China, the persecution of Christians in the Muslim majority regions, and in Tibet, is still severe.
Until a few years ago, China was among the top ten countries in which Christians risked the most in living their faith. Though Open Doors’ contacts report that there are still over 100 Christians serving long-term prison sentences, that number is significantly lower than 20-30 years ago, and in recent years few Christians have been sentenced to long-term prison sentences. Some of the imprisoned Christians were arrested for being “too politically active.” Such is the case of 39-year-old Alimjan Yimit, who received a 15-year prison sentence on August 9, 2009 on the charge of providing state secrets to overseas organizations. The real reason for his incarceration, however, is his zeal to share the gospel and lead a church in the Uyghur area. Though every unjustly convicted prisoner is one too many, and China should reexamine the cases of imprisoned Christians, China has improved its treatment of the church in other areas. House church raids, confiscation of Christian materials, and arrests have been replaced by increasing cooperation with the church.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says a Beijing pastor Da Wei (alias), “The government still sees the church as a political movement and they want to know what Christians are up to. However, their methods have changed. No longer do the police put us in jail. We get invited for tea-often-too often. Sometimes we are “invited” every few days, especially when we speak out about something that the government doesn’t like. What if I refuse? I can’t refuse. They will push me harder to meet up with them. The meetings themselves are unpleasant. The agents always have an agenda. They want me to do something or tell something. I have no problem to tell them what is happening in my church. That is no secret. As long as I give this information they are happy and I don’t mind if they know what we preach or what kind of activities we organize.”
At age 66, Pastor Chen knows persecution. His parents led a house church during the Cultural Revolution. “I remember one day, I was still a teenager, that my parents gave me our Bibles and hymnals and told me to bury them. Soon the police came to search everyone’s house. I will never forget the burning pile of Bibles which they had found in Christian’s homes-a horrible sight.”
Today is much different, says Chen. He too “gets invited for tea.” When he received a request to come to the Lausanne Conference in South Africa, the local police came to arrest him. “They wanted to prevent me from speaking about the Chinese house church there. So I told them I did not plan to go there anyway. The local official seemed to be very relieved.”
The government is increasingly unconcerned with religions and religious groups, unless they pose a social or political threat (such as ties with overseas missions). Though many foreign Christians would perceive the government’s restrictions as persecution, most Chinese Christians are content with the improving relationships with the government. Some large, unregistered house churches were even recently offered land to construct safe church buildings.
On the local level, corruption among officials has been slower to decline. They use false charges as well as normally unobserved laws and regulations to arrest and blackmail Christians. Thankfully, this practice is gradually lessening. An announcement from China’s Communist Party elite that the party will fiercely campaign against corruption has raised hopes that this trend will continue.
Though older pastors, like Chen, have experienced persecution firsthand, the new generation of Chinese leaders often do not know about persecution. “I mentor a 30 year old, urban pastor,” says an Open Doors co-worker. “He didn’t realize that today there are still many persecuted Christians. I shared stories with him from North Korea and from the Muslim world and he was very touched. Now, every morning he and his church members hold online devotions through Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. He shares those stories with them, and they pray for the Persecuted Church. The pastor says that in the future, when his church is stronger, they want to actively engage with the Persecuted Church and help them where they can, perhaps with money, perhaps through mission trips.”
Why is China still on the World Watch List? In spite of the recent improvements, it is still officially illegal to practice faith outside church buildings, and there is still fierce persecution of Christians among the minorities. In Muslim dominated areas, Christians must still hold secret house church gatherings. Minority Christians are basically caught between a rock and a hard place, according to Bao Yu, Open Doors’ Chinese minority group coordinator. “There is persecution from one’s environment, especially family members, but the government plays a part too. Minority leaders and, leaders of the traditional religion, may complain to Han Chinese officials, and because they do not want any civil unrest, they may act against the convert.”
The several hundred Tibetan Christians are similarly at risk of being thrown out of the house, beaten by their family, or arrested by government officials. The Tibetan culture is deeply rooted in Buddhism and B. Tibetans worship many gods and demons says Yu, “When people ‘come to faith,’ they just add Jesus to the palette of gods they worship. And, because many are young in their faith, the Tibetan believers are largely dependent on foreign missionaries for evangelism, discipleship, and church leadership.”
The Chinese Church finds itself in a completely different situation than a decade ago. Open Doors’ ministry in China has evolved to reflect that change. We no longer bring free Christian Bibles and provide biblical education to tens of thousands of church leaders. The Chinese Church is capable of doing those things itself, and of reaching out to the poor, and hard to reach areas. Open Doors’ main focus will now be on finding ways to support Christians among the minorities, as well as to continue investing in the Chinese Han Church. The vision is to strengthen them so that they are equipped and eager to live out biblical values and to engage with the Persecuted Church both in China and abroad.
We are over-awed, Father, by the astonishing work You have done in China. Thank You for the vast church there, something that can only be explained by the work of Your Spirit. As persecution lessens, we pray that the church will remain alert to more subtle attack, such as from materialism that holds so much sway in China. We pray for Christians in Muslim areas such as among the Uyghurs, and in Tibet. Protect them from pressures from family and community to renounce their faith and help them grow in biblical understanding. As the situation improves for Christians in China, grow their desire to engage with the Persecuted Church both in minority areas of China and in other countries. In the name of Jesus who has done awesome deeds in China, Amen.