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Late in November, a Chinese court sentenced Qin Defu, an elder at the influential Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, to four years in prison. The charges, according to lawyer Zhang Peihong, were “illegal business operation” for printing and distributing 20,000 books for church use.
Early Rain Pastor Wang Yi will likely be tried soon: He has been detained for a year on suspicion of state subversion. Wang, a former legal scholar, has been outspoken in criticizing the Chinese government for persecuting Christianity and even called Chinese President Xi Jinping a sinner in need of repentance.
Dec. 9 marks the first anniversary of the crackdown on Early Rain, when police shut down the unregistered church and arrested more than 100 church leaders and members. In the past year, members have faced continued monitoring and harassment from police, with more than 300 people arrested in total. Despite the loss of their building, Early Rain members continue to gather in homes for Sunday worship and train up new leaders to take on the pastoral and preaching load.
During the initial wave of arrests last year, police detained Wang, his wife, and the church’s four elders, as well as deacons, seminary students, and other involved members of the church. Authorities released most of them soon afterward and sent those who were not natives of Chengdu back to their hometowns.
Others remained detained for weeks or months: Wang’s wife, Jiang Rong, was only released in June. Although she is now reunited with her son, the two live under house arrest and cannot communicate with Early Rain members. Police have released the other three elders—Li Zihu, Matthew Bingsen Su, and Li Yingqiang—on bail pending trial and sent them back to their hometowns.
Authorities would not allow Zhang, Wang’s self-appointed attorney, to represent him, claiming he had too many ties to the church. Wang, whose health and mental state are good, was able to appoint two other lawyers to defend him, according to Zhang’s Facebook post. Zhang estimates Wang will be sentenced to at least 10 years in prison, as he had taken responsibility for the “illegally” printed books in the church.
Titus Wu, a church leader at Early Rain (WORLD has changed his name for his protection), said that since much of the church’s leadership was behind bars, other members had to step up into leadership roles. Small-group leaders took on extra responsibilities shepherding group members as they opened their homes on Sunday morning for worship with preaching done through videoconferencing.
Police have shut down some of these weekly gatherings and pressured landlords to kick church members out of their homes. In some cases, police posted security guards outside church members’ homes 24 hours a day to track their movements. One Early Rain member, Tang Chunliang, recalled that he and his wife were among 44 people arrested in February for holding a meeting in his home.
After the couple’s release, police forced them to move multiple times, according to the church’s Facebook page. Police and community monitors (low-level government agents) filled the lock on their front door with glue, turned off their water, sprayed graffiti threats on the wall by their front door, and sent tattooed thugs to intimidate them. A month after they moved to their most recent apartment, the landlord told Tang that community monitors were forcing him to kick them out. They not only threatened to take away the landlord’s apartment but also pressured his family members.
When Tang went to the police to ask why he was being forced to move again, they told him it was because they feared he would hold another “illegal gathering.” They added that the couple could not live in that district because they were “key persons of interest.”
Although some people have left the church due to the persecution, Wu said that about 400 people still watch Early Rain sermons through videoconferencing each Sunday. Meeting in small groups has taken a toll on many of the church members, who miss gathering together corporately on Sundays. The only time they’ve been able to enjoy larger-scale fellowship has been during weddings and funerals.
Without elders or pastors, church members have gone months without communion, Wu said. They plan to invite an elder from another church to perform the sacraments for Early Rain.
In July, Early Rain member Liao Qiang fled with his family to Taiwan to apply for asylum in the United States. Liao and his daughter Ren Ruiting told the Associated Press they were detained during the crackdown, and after their release police forced them to report their whereabouts whenever they left home. According to Ren, police told her that her safety could not be guaranteed if she disobeyed. As a result of the family going public, police placed travel restrictions on members of the church back in Chengdu, making it difficult for them to travel overseas.
Early Rain set up a recovery and counseling ministry for church members who faced longer detentions. The church also created a Bible study for those in recovery, providing a safe environment for people to talk about their experience. Some members share encouraging stories of evangelizing inside prison cells and standing firm by the grace of God. But others wrestle with feelings of guilt for confessing or denouncing the church while under duress. They question if the church will accept them again.
Wu understands their struggle. But he says, “In this we see that the darkness is real, but grace is greater.”