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On Sunday evening, Chinese officials launched a crackdown on Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church and its outspoken pastor, Wang Yi. Since then, police have broken down doors, swarmed apartment complexes, and ransacked homes to detain more than 100 leaders and members of the well-known house church, including Wang and all but one of the church’s elders.
According to a series of prayer requests sent out by the church, police have gone to the homes of church members and pressured them to sign a document stating Early Rain is an “illegal gathering” and promising not to step foot in the church again. Police took into custody those who refused to sign. Police also raided two dormitories of the seminary and liberal arts college associated with Early Rain and took the students away.
Since China’s updated religious regulations went into effect in February, many have expected a crackdown on Early Rain, one of the most influential house churches in China. (Although Early Rain meets in a building, it is still considered an unregistered “house church.”) The first crackdown happened briefly on May 12 as the church held a prayer meeting to commemorate the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Although authorities arrested 200 members, including Wang, they released all of them within 24 hours.
Although at the time the church seemed to have avoided the persecution churches in provinces like Henan and Zhejiang faced, the Ministry of Public Security made clear that authorities would deal with Early Rain by the end of the year, according to church member Paul Huang (name changed for his security). This time, multiple government departments worked together to fan the city of Chengdu and locate church leaders and members at their homes or workplaces. Authorities also raided other churches in the presbytery.
Li Yingqiang, the sole Early Rain church elder not in custody, told me that when he heard that the police were coming after Early Rain, he shut off his phone, arranged for another family to take care of his children, and went into hiding. After he left his house, police broke down his door, and Li believes they have detained his wife.
He noted that the church had created plans in case of a government raid such as this, but they could not be carried out because nearly all the church staff had been taken at once. “My feelings are complicated,” he said Monday as he realized he was the only one left.
The persecution began around 6 p.m. Sunday, when police cars whisked away Early Rain’s cameraman outside the church’s building. Police officers also showed up at the cameraman’s apartment and searched it. Around the same time, authorities shut off the electricity to the apartment of another church staff member, Song Enguang. Police then knocked on his door and detained him, and about a dozen police officers arrested three other church members who had come to check up on him.
Huang noted that nothing had been amiss during the church’s Sunday service earlier that day. A couple of police officers had sat in to listen, but that was a normal occurrence at the church. Huang said that after news about the cameraman spread, church members started contacting others to ensure they were OK: No one could reach pastor Wang and his wife, or elder Qin Defu.
As the night progressed, more people were arrested. Police surrounded the office building where the church meets and cut electricity to the seminary’s library. One church member had gone to visit her parents in northeastern China, and Sichuan police officials followed her there, knocking on her door in the middle of the night to take her into custody. Another church member, who managed a printing business and helped Early Rain design hymnals, found his business raided by police and his printers confiscated.
Huang also received a call from police a few days ago asking for his address. He refused to answer that day, and has since gone into hiding. “I’m a little afraid,” Huang said, “but I also know that God will protect His church in this time.” He plans to keep spreading the word about the situation, to visit those who are detained, and to help watch children whose parents have been detained.
Classes at Early Rain’s unregistered Christian school have also been canceled. One elementary-age student who didn’t get the memo showed up at school only to be taken away by police. The police have also visited the parents of students at the school, forcing them to send their kids to public schools. The wife of Matthew Su, one of the elders who had been taken, said that at 4 a.m. on Monday, two women from the Ministry of Education showed up at her apartment and told her she needed to send her two oldest children to the local public elementary school. She declined, saying, “You’ve told us, thank you. We will not go. If you want to arrest their parents then arrest us.” The officials said they’d keep in touch and left, according to the Early Rain updates.
Of the more than 100 people detained, only two—assistant deacon Zhang Guoqing and church member Zhou Yong—were released Monday morning and placed under surveillance. The Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs also contacted Early Rain’s church plant to tell members it will likewise be banned.
Li, the elder, asked the global church to pray for them and to continue spreading the word. “Pray that God would give us the courage and the strength to deal with this persecution,” he said. “That those [in detention] would be a good witness, and that the church members wouldn’t compromise, but instead … they would know God is real and that He will protect them.”
Update, 12/11/18: Police detained elder Li Yingqiang at 2 a.m. on Tuesday and continued to hunt down members who had gone into hiding. Two other elders were released but remain under house arrest. A few hours before being found, Li handwrote a letter to Early Rain describing the church’s contingency plan. He noted that the church would never join the government-sanctioned Three-Self Church, would not alter its statement of faith, and would, if possible, try to return to its building for corporate worship rather than meet in small groups. He ended the letter:
Beloved brothers and sisters, I am writing this letter in hiding. May you all be filled with joy in the gospel of Christ. May you welcome, filled with hope, the even heavier cross and more difficult lives that lie ahead of you.
‘Christ is Lord. Grace is King. Bear the cross. Keep the faith.’ This is the vision Early Rain Covenant Church received from the Lord. May we all obtain it, cherish it, put it into practice, and live it out!
This story has been updated to correct the language of the document police pressured Early Rain church members to sign.