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Notebook Houses of God

Houses of God

(Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong)

Houses of God

Houses of God

The Golden Lamp church, China's first megachurch, was built to serve nearly 50,000 worshippers in Shanxi province of central China. But that was before hundreds of police and hired paramilitaries descended on it last September, smashing doors and windows, seizing Bibles, and sending dozens of worshippers to hospitals with injuries.

Towering eight stories over wheat fields beside a highway in the city of Linfen, the church was built by husband and wife evangelists Wang Xiaoguang and Yang Rongli as a home for their followers, whose numbers had soared to more than 50,000.

The couple, administrators at the provincial teachers college, had been preaching in the region since 1992, establishing a network of three dozen communities meeting in improvised spaces such as factory dormitories and greenhouses.

According to Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association, Shanxi authorities grumbled as the church was being built last year, but offered few, if any, signs of an impending crackdown. Now the church's co-pastors are in jail and the gates to the church are secured with bicycle locks, while a police armored personnel vehicle remains outside, according to eyewitnesses this month.

Wang, Yang, and three other church leaders were convicted on Nov. 25 of charges that included "illegally occupying agricultural land" and assembling a crowd "to disrupt traffic." Yang, 51, received a seven-year sentence, while Wang, 56, and the others received terms of three to four years. Five others were sentenced without trial to two years in a labor camp.