In a First in 60 Years, Chinese House Church Leaders Petition Legislature to Guarantee Freedom of Religion
May 9, 2011
BEIJING, (christiansunite.com) -- In a historic move, clergy from dozens of mainland Chinese house churches are petitioning China's legislature to guarantee freedom of religion and to peacefully resolve the recent church-state conflict involving one of the largest house churches in the capital, ChinaAid learned on Sunday.
This is the first such move in 60 years of Communist rule of China and represents a further emboldening of the house church movement, which for decades was active only in the countryside, meeting in small groups in private homes and careful to maintain a low profile to avoid attracting government attention to the illegal gatherings.
House churches in China are illegal because all Christian religious activity is supposed to happen only within the government-controlled churches run by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, for Protestants, and the Catholic Patriotic Association, for Catholics.
The current conflict between Shouwang Church in Beijing and the authorities has now brought to a head an issue that has been simmering in recent years of how to respond to the phenomenal growth in China's urban centers of these technically illegal house churches that have grown into congregations of hundreds and even, as in the case of Shouwang, a thousand members.
The petition itself was not yet ready for release on Sunday, but it was one of the items for prayer in the Sunday May 8 newsletter of one of the signatory churches, Autumn Rain in Chengdu, Sichuan province:
The church newsletter said:
"In response to the Beijing Shouwang Church incident that has continued for four consecutive Sundays and with the approval of the board of elders, Elder Wang Yi, in his capacity as minister of Autumn Rain Church, will join with the pastors and preachers of dozens house churches in signing a citizens' petition to the National People's Congress seeking a resolution of the church-state conflict and a guarantee of religious freedom. The dozens of preachers, in their roles as pastors of local churches, will also call on Christian citizens to sign the petition. Starting tomorrow, May 9, the church will pray and fast for three days for this first peaceful petition by Chinese house churches in 60 years (including the church's regular day of prayer and fasting on May 12, it will be a total of four days). The board of elders calls on brothers and sisters to participate in the prayer and fasting in whole or in part, according to his or her own spiritual maturity and prompting (of the Holy Spirit). We ask the Lord to strengthen the church's resolve, and protect and use this citizens' petition to make an open and public defense of our faith."
A large-scale signature campaign would further raise the stakes in the Shouwang confrontation, both in making it harder for the authorities to treat the Shouwang Church actions as an isolated incident but also in making it easier for the government to crack down on specific churches and Christians it deems to be troublemakers.
"The past few weeks of serious conflict in Beijing has shown that China's church-state relations have come to a critical crossroad," said ChinaAid founder and president Pastor Bob Fu.
"With this sincere petition, the highest authority of China - the NPC - is being given a historic opportunity to make a difference by either opening a new better chapter that will affirm and consolidate the religious freedom guaranteed in China's Constitution or allowing the current worsening situation to continue, which will only lead to further collisions between the Chinese church and a government that persists in holding onto an outdated religious policy made in 1950s," Fu said.
The Shouwang Church clash is over a place for the church to hold its Sunday worship services. In recent years, it has repeatedly been forced to move out of rented facilities when landlords came under pressure from the authorities to evict the growing church, When the church paid more than $4 million to purchase one floor of an office building, the authorities told the seller not to hand over the keys. In April, when the church was again evicted from its leased space, the church decided to hold its Sunday service outdoors, setting off a weekly Sunday morning police action that has resulted in hundreds of detentions and the informal house arrest of key church leaders.