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On the evening of Dec. 11, 48 hours after police detained Pastor Wang Yi, Early Rain Covenant Church released a statement Wang had prepared beforehand should such an event occur. Entitled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” Wang noted that his goal was not to change China’s political system but to obey God’s call as a minister of the Word of God.
“As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission,” Wang wrote in September. “Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.”
Police detained more than 100 of Early Rain’s leaders and members beginning on Dec. 9, the heaviest crackdown on one of China’s most influential unregistered churches. By the afternoon of Dec. 12, 80 people remained in custody, including Wang. Authorities charged both Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, with incitement to subvert state power, which could result in a five- to 15-year sentence. Jiang is reportedly held in a “residential surveillance in a designated location (RSDL),” where she will be kept in solitary confinement outside the judicial system for six months. Torture and forced confessions are common in RSDL.
Authorities also charged seven other church leaders and members with crimes of internet provocation and illegal business operation."
The move is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s continued tightening of religion in the country. In February, the government released new religious regulations that caused widespread crackdowns in provinces such as Henan and Anhui. Hundreds of house churches have been raided, destroyed, and closed. Early Rain, which has 750 congregants, has long been considered a target as Wang has made it a point to keep the church above ground and active in the community in order to “testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Matthew Bingsen Su, an elder at Early Rain, told me on Dec. 12 that he had been detained on Dec. 9 after going to check up on elder Qin Defu, who had not been responding to messages. Police were already searching Qin’s apartment, and took Su to the station as well. They questioned him about the church’s school and about Wang, then informed him that both the church and the school are illegal and will be banned. They asked him to promise to stop attending the church.
Su refused to answer their questions about his pastor and stated that the regulations were unconstitutional—as the Chinese constitution protects freedom of religion—and that it deliberately persecutes Christians. He also refused to stop attending the church. While sitting in the interrogation room, he started reciting the Westminster Shorter Catechism to himself and found great comfort in its answers. “God doesn’t always save us from suffering and persecution, but he used suffering himself to take upon himself the evil, persecution, and the pitiful of the world,” Su said. “I was constantly asking myself, if my detention is extended and my body is persecuted, am I willing to joyfully say, ‘Lord, I am willing’?”
Su said he was treated fairly by the police officers, and many didn’t seem to know much about Early Rain. They were simply obeying the commands of their superiors. After authorities released him on Dec. 10, about 24 hours after his arrest, he remained under surveillance: His cell phone is monitored, and plainclothes police monitor his movements.
The other released church members have faced a similar situation: either placed under surveillance or sent back to their hometown and told not to return to Chengdu. Several described being mistreated while detained: beaten, trampled on, and deprived of sleep, and two women said they were strip-searched.
In a letter written by Li before his capture, he detailed the church’s contingency plan: The church would never join the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church, would stay open and above ground, and, if possible, would try to return to its building for weekly corporate worship rather than meeting in homes. In a statement made Dec. 12, the church announced that “small groups would meet together this evening as usual.”
Wang’s statement described a type of religious disobedience that would respect the government in areas where God has given it authority, but “through peaceable means, in meek resistance and active forbearance, filled with joy, resist all administrative policies and legal measures that oppress the church and interfere with the faith of Christians.”
He ends the statement saying: “I firmly believe that Christ has called me to carry out this faithful disobedience through a life of service, under this regime that opposes the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the means by which I preach the gospel, and it is the mystery of the gospel which I preach.”
(This story was updated on Dec. 14 with new information.)