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For the past 12 years, Frank Hu (name changed for security), a pastor in central Taiwan, has led short-term mission trips to the Chinese province of Henan where he organizes camps for up to 140 college students.
But this summer, church groups in three of the six villages where Hu regularly held retreats warned him not to come, as there was no place for them to meet. After February’s Religious Regulation went into effect, local officials have shut down what they consider “illegal religious meetings” and detained one of the church’s pastors. Churches in two other villages invited Hu to put on the camp, as local officials are more lenient in some areas. Still, those camps drew only 30 to 40 students.
The Chinese government likely chose Henan province as a target because of its high population of Christians. Both government-sanctioned Three-Self churches and unregistered house churches have felt the government clampdown escalating in recent months as evidenced by numerous cell phone videos of destroyed churches, burnt Bibles, pastors’ arrests, and cross demolitions circulating online. Because of Chinese censorship, Henan Christians pass the videos on to overseas Christians who spread the images through Facebook and Twitter.
Because Three-Self churches are under government control, they face the brunt of the new rules. Minors under 18, Communist Party members, and members of the military may no longer attend churches, and the government requires some churches to have a Chinese flag on display, sing the national anthem, and collect data on attendees.
According to John Gao (name changed for security), a missionary familiar with Henan, the government is forcing official churches to merge, so instead of monitoring 50 churches, they can just monitor five. The result, Gao said, is that attendance at some Three-Self churches in the countryside has dropped by 50 percent. Families have no one to watch their children on Sunday mornings, others fear that attending church could cost them their jobs, and others in remote villages are too far from a Three-Self church to attend.
This has led to growth in attendance at house churches, but house churches face their own challenges. Under pressure from the government, landlords have evicted large house churches with more than 150 attendees, and churches that own their buildings are seeing police ban the use of their buildings for church meetings.
Hu said the house church pastors had made preparations to break into smaller groups that meet at homes, and he believes the effect of the clampdown may be that churchgoers become more involved with their churches. Instead of one pastor, a few elders, and 200 congregants, every house church of 10-20 will need a leader, helpers to set up the room, and a worship leader. Persecution is also an effective way to separate the wheat from the chaff: Some may stop attending church, but they may have only attended for material benefits.
Students are also a target in the crackdown: At the end of the school year in June, schools required parents to sign a statement that they wouldn’t let their children attend religious activities over the summer. College administrators warned incoming freshmen not to talk with anyone on campus who broaches the topic of religion, yet Hu said brave Christian students still build relationships with freshmen and invite them to church.
I asked Hu if he felt the locals were afraid as they face increasing pressure. “They are more cautious and alert, but not afraid,” he said. He believes the government is using Henan as a trial run and will spread the persecution to the rest of the country.
In a Facebook post, Pastor Wang Yi wrote: “Pray that the Lord would prepare each church member to count the cost and cast away his worldly things, pray that He would give us the blessing of righteous suffering and watch over our spiritual life, and not take away our reward because of our cowardice and weakness.”