Without warning, the Huoshi Church was surrounded by hundreds of local and regional officials. According to international standards, the Huoshi Church is a small congregation with around 300 members. It is, however, the biggest church in the Chinese city Guiyang and likely the entire province of Guizhou.
An Open Doors contact, Kay*, recently visited the church to learn details of what happened during the opening service held last November and to learn whether persecution in this southwestern part of China is increasing. “It has been years since I heard of such a large group of government officials surrounding a church!” she shares. “The Huoshi Church is a high profile church, one that pushes the boundaries of local authorities. It had just moved its house church to a new apartment in a commercial building. To celebrate, they had invited many guests from other parts of the country as well as people from overseas. These guests were told to leave their hotels and were escorted back to their hometowns or to the border by the government officials. During the raid, the church was pressed to register and become part of the state-sanctioned church. They were promised the government would not intervene with them. The Christian leaders refused the proposal.”
The authorities eventually backed off and allowed the church members to continue with the ceremony. No arrests were made. Kay observes, “Since then, the Huoshi Church still continues its church activities. The government officials invite the church leaders for ‘tea’ meetings more often. They use these meetings to find out what is happening at the church. Sometimes, they discourage the church from conducting training activities. They also register the name of people attending the church at the entrance, as a gesture of soft threatening. Guizhou is definitely one of the tighter regions in China.”
Pressure is also frequently exerted outside the church premises. “Some church members hold official government positions, such as policemen,” Kay continued. “They were asked not to attend the church. Despite this mild persecution, the church held evangelical meetings during Christmas and shared the gospel as much as possible. However, they did this in a relatively low profile matter.”
The church said it would not hesitate to hire human rights lawyers to fight against oppression. “Some churches are not afraid to become high profile,” says Kay. “They know local authorities have to be very careful when they act against Christians. Too harsh of actions can easily lead to international reputation damage and losing face is a shameful thing in China.”
The Huoshi Church is an example of a church that has dared to become high profile. The Christians push the limits of what the local government will allow them to do, but at the same time they try not to cross the line. Because of its size and international connections, the church has now shown up on China’s radar, and that may mean further restrictions.
Persecution in China has changed over the years. In 2009, China still ranked 13th on Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries with the most persecution of Christians. Over the past five years, China has dropped considerably. In 2015, it takes the 29th spot on the same list. Christianity is much more accepted by the government today that it has been in recent history. China’s leaders now want religious groups to have a positive impact on the society, but are still resistant to the involvement of people from Hong Kong or other countries. Because of the government’s new stance, even corrupt officials need to be careful in how they deal with churches, lest they run into trouble with the judicial system.
But persecution is not completely a thing of the past. In fact, 2014 was a relatively difficult year for the Chinese church in comparison to the previous two years. The reasons for this are:
- Growth of Islamic extremism and the rise of dangerous cults make China more attentive to all religious groups. Christian leaders are monitored more closely and “invited for tea” more often.
- China wants to curtail foreign influence on churches and other religious groups. This is not new, but causes more concern in some years than in others.
- Top state officials and regional and/or local authorities want to show their power to the population. It is expected 2015 will be a more difficult year for the church. This is only the second year of the current government, and the situation is normally tighter in the first years of new leadership than in subsequent years when power is firmly established.
- Many Communist Party members are coming to faith in Christ, and that is discouraged.
- China still often exercises pressure on churches to join the state church.
- China is also increasing in points on the WWL because of persecution by society and family members, as well as the tighter security situation in areas where Muslim Background Believers and Tibetan Believers live. Those former Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists experience pressure from family members as well as the local community.
“Functioning as a church in China continues to be a delicate balancing act,” says Kay. “Prayers from our international brothers and sisters are still very important and appreciated. Our churches have to show up on God’s radar.”
* Pseudonym used to protect her identity
Father, we stand in amazement at the work You have done in China. We must confess that it has not been primarily due to the effort of men; rather, we must rise in praise, acknowledging that “You have done it!” Your church there continues to both suffer and grow as You change the hearts of men and bring fruit to the work of faithful believers on behalf of Christ’s gospel. We pray especially today for churches like Huoshi that serve in areas where more pressure is placed on the church. We pray for You to fill them with Your wisdom and courage as they straddle that delicate balance between standing up to local authorities and cooperating with them where it does not weaken their stand for Christ. In the midst of persecution, bring about a revival in this city. In the name of Jesus, who rules and reigns over His Church, and indeed over the whole earth! Amen.