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Raid on Zion

Beijing authorities shut down prominent unregistered church

Raid on Zion

Official seal notices stuck on a backdoor entrance of Zion Church in Beijing on Tuesday, two days after authorities shut it down. (Andy Wong/AP)

On Sunday, Chinese authorities officially banned one of the country’s largest unregistered house churches, Beijing’s Zion Church. Two days later, authorities detained senior pastor Ezra Jin and other Zion leaders, the latest move in the government’s recent crackdown on Christianity.

Claiming the church had broken rules forbidding mass gatherings, more than 100 government workers burst into the church after its last service ended at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, forcing everyone except Jin to leave the premises. They confiscated “illegal promotional material,” smashed Zion’s sign in the main foyer as well as its vision statement on the wall, and sealed off the church property, according to a church statement.

Police detained inside a bus about a dozen church members who had tried to get back into the building, and handed them flyers for government-sanctioned Three-self churches they could attend instead: Each congregant refused. After four hours, authorities released all the Christians, including Jin.

Since its inception in 2007, Zion has become one of the most well-known house churches in China for its size (about 1,600 parishioners), for Jin’s leadership in the Chinese missions movement, and for the church’s public visibility—for instance, the church address can easily be found online. The church itself looks nothing like what the term “house church” might suggest: It hosts a roomy auditorium with rows of plush seats, state-of-the-art lighting and multimedia, and a large LED screen behind the pulpit. 

Government pressure against Zion mounted in April, after Jin refused to let the church’s landlord set up surveillance cameras inside the sanctuary. In response, the landlord—under pressure from the government—shut off the church’s water and electricity and announced he would cancel the church’s lease. The congregation had until September to vacate the premises. Authorities also harassed about 100 church members, offering bribes and making threats in order to persuade them to stop attending. 

Over the summer, authorities shut down Zion’s WeChat accounts, its Youku video account (China’s version of YouTube), and six of Zion’s satellite campuses. Then on Sunday, they targeted Zion’s main church campus, housed on the third floor of an office building in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. Police vans, buses, fire engines, and ambulances surrounded the building, according to a Facebook post by Franklin Wang, a pastor at Zion.

Andy Wong/AP

Police officers guard the main entrance at Zion Church. (Andy Wong/AP)

After announcing the ban on the church, police guarded the building’s doors: On Monday, a photo online showed an elderly parishioner kneeling and praying in Zion’s parking lot, barred from entering the building. On Tuesday afternoon, Jin, Wang and other pastors at Zion Church returned to the building to retrieve their personal items. Police said they would allow two people in to gather the items, but then whisked Jin off in a car and confiscated his phone. Police also forced Wang and other pastors into a different car and took them away to an undisclosed location. They released the pastors later that day.

Facebook

A parishioner kneels in Zion’s parking lot. (Facebook)

In May, I asked Jin if the congregation would meet in houses if it lost its building. “We won’t split up,” he said. “We will persist—Chinese Christians should be able to grow in the public space, it’s unreasonable for them to tell us to leave. This is our country too.” In an interview with Hong Kong’s The Stand News, he said that they planned to worship outdoors. 

Earlier this month, Jin and about 300 other house church pastors in China signed a statement condemning the Chinese government’s persecution of churches. While they believe the Bible calls them to submit to authorities, “under no circumstances will we lead our churches to join a religious organization controlled by the government, to register with the religious administration department, or to accept any kind of affiliation,” the wrote. “We also will not accept any ‘ban’ or ‘fine’ imposed on our churches due to our faith.”

The statement continued: “For the sake of the gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses—even the loss of our freedom and our lives.”

CENSORING CHRISTIAN MEDIA:

While the Chinese government censors any political commentary online, it has allowed the existence of Christian websites and WeChat channels as long as they don’t stray into political issues. Yet a new draft law on the administration of religious information online suggests this freedom won’t last for long. According the draft, all religious websites must be registered with the government and may not link to unauthorized sermons, show videos of religious activities, criticize religious policies, or “incit[e] minors to participate in religious activities.”