By Brynne Lawrence
(Midland, Texas—June 10, 2016) China Aid conducted an exclusive interview on May 12 with a member of a serially targeted house church in China’s central Guizhou province. The church member, who requested anonymity, described the church’s current against persecution and detailed how the international community could help.
The interviewee, an attendee of Huoshi Church, disclosed that the church currently faces the trial of six separate cases, five of which involve church members Wang Yao and Zhang Xiuhong, pastors Yang Hua and Su Tianfu and a non-Christian named Yu Lei, who, together with Wang, leaked a confidential document that revealed the existence of a state-run command and control center dedicated to persecuting the church.
|Officials raid Huoshi Church.|
(Photo: China Aid)
Additionally, the church member said that authorities recently began visiting Yang Hua’s wife at home and monitoring her when she leaves the house. Similarly, Pastor Su Tianfu and his wife have experienced increased government surveillance.
According to the Christian, Huoshi Church’s ability to survive the crackdown on its religious activities depends on its staying in small groups. Repeated raids from government personnel and the imprisonment of church members have forced the church to disperse into smaller gatherings meeting in private residences. However, the interviewee fears the leaders of these groups lack the training needed to oversee them and grow their attendance.
When asked how the international society could help churches experiencing persecution, he emphasized the importance of pressuring Chinese officials and legislating an international law that would punish human rights violators.
A transcript of the interview can be read below.
China Aid reports abuses, such as those experienced by Huoshi Church, in order to promote religious freedom and rule of law in China.
Q: I just want to start out with some questions about the situation with Huoshi Church. What do you think was the most unexpected incident?
A: I didn’t expect the confidential document. I knew [the government was] going to do something about the church, but I didn’t expect it to be so serious. If they have a [command and control center] they can mobilize all their resources. At the beginning, I just thought it was just at the city-level, but this document suggests that there must be some provincial level [government body] or an even higher on the operation. It’s not just a single case. There’s a big plan, and our church is just part of the plan.
Q: Was it pretty overwhelming when you found that out?
A: Yeah. When I first saw that, I thought, Wow. They used the way they treated the Falun Gong many years ago to target a Christian church [Editor’s Note: Falun Gong is a spiritual discipline in China that is heavily persecuted].
Q: What would you say are some of the church’s current struggles?
A: There are so many. A case is going to be tried soon. We have four victims in jail. One pastor, Pastor Su, was released, but he is on bail and is still considered to be a criminal, so there are five cases [involving people]. We also sued the [Urban] Management Bureau. This is another case. So, we have six cases. If we put them all together, there are six cases.
Q: How soon are those going to be tried?
A: I have no idea.
Q: The four people incarcerated are currently Zhang Xiuhong, Yang Hua, and then the two people who leaked the confidential document, correct?
A: Yes. Of course, we want the people to be released, and of course, we want to still keep the space. We want to get our money back, but I have no clue [about the trials].
Q: Do you have any updates about the church space? What is the latest that you’ve heard?
A: The latest is that a lawyer wrote a defense statement to the judge, but the judge mailed it back to him.
Q: So, there has been no progress?
Q: What are some of the church’s current needs, and how would you like to see the international community reach out to help Huoshi Church?
A: There are many different ways. For instance, now it is very difficult for us to pay the mortgage, but the mortgage is roughly $5,000 a month. During this month, we’re going to run out of all our money. If we cannot pay the mortgage, it’s another good excuse for the government official to take it away from us, so [providing money] is a practical way to help. Another way to help is to support the lawyers who are still brave enough to stand up and defend the six different cases. Now, there are already 12-14 lawyers involved in this case. Three or four of them have been hired by the family members [of the incarcerated], not by the church, including Yu Lei’s lawyer and Wang Yao’s lawyer [Editor’s note: Yu Lei and Wang Yao were responsible for leaking the confidential document]. Wang Yao’s stepfather is trying to reach Pastor Su. He wants to include his stepdaughter’s case [with our cases], so that means that our lawyer could also defend Wang Yao as well at some time, but Yu Lei’s wife hired a lawyer by herself. Therefore, supporting lawyers is another way to help. Additionally, Pastor Su feels really unsafe at this moment, and his wife and three children want to move out as well.
Q: Do you mean they want to move out of the country?
A: Yes, they want to move out of the country to a safe place, and Yang Hua’s children and his wife want to do the same. Yu Lei’s son is in Lynchburg right now at Liberty Christian Academy. I hope that he can apply for asylum or something like that and be safe. If they have some financial problems, I hope people will help them out.
Another thing is right now, we have divided our church into small groups. There are many groups, but most of the leaders of the small groups frankly do not have any experience to take responsibility and lead the people, so they also need training on how to [get more people to join the] group or build a small group into a small church. They need some kind of campus building or financial support when they start the group, because they either need a place [to meet] or need some kind of training.
Of course, the international community can put some pressure on the Chinese government from all different angles as well. For instance, Congress or different states could write some joint statements. I don’t know which state is the sister state of Guizhou province, but it must be some state. For instance, maybe [China Aid] could find out [if it is Texas] and then push a little bit. Additionally, I bet there are many connections in the business sector with Chinese state-owned companies or the Chinese government. Maybe, if they dare, they can do something about it.
International organizations such as [China Aid] and NGOs might be able to do something as well.
Congress already has a database [of human rights abuses in China], but the legislative body could pass a law that makes sure that, if the Chinese government or any other country [persecutes people], they will be punished in some way, like the law against Russia, called the Malinsky Law. The government can do something about it, not just protest or send over a statement but also do something more holistic. This is what I can think of.
Q: Those are a lot of good options. What are some of your concerns for the church’s future?
A: … If the small groups can survive and grow, I don’t think there’s anything I should worry about. Definitely, all this poverty we have [is concerning], and all the people locked in jail should be free, but in terms of the church, if the small group can stand firmly and grow, [the church will be fine].
Q: I think it will grow. God is more powerful than the Chinese government, right?
A: Yes, definitely! According to the Bible, the church grows even faster under persecution. [For instance], you can see that in Europe and the United States—maybe not in Texas, however, but in Germany—the church is shrinking. This is a very free country, and the government and people respect religion, but even still [the church shrinks]. In China, even though there is so much persecution, the church still grows. Personally, from my perspective as a Christian, I don’t think all this persecution is totally a bad thing [since it helps the church grow].
Q: You told the China Aid staff how Huoshi Church didn’t expect to have to use digital communication as much. How can the Chinese churches be better equipped for the persecution they face?
A: This is a very basic issue. You have to make sure communication between the church, the church members and the outside world is going through secure channels. Later on, I found a way to convince people to communicate using these secure tools. I said, “We are not bad guys, but it’s just like when we send letters; we seal them instead of just leaving them open. There are no secrets that we have, but we still want to be respected. It’s not about bad and good. We just want to be respected. We don’t want all of our personal dialogue to be heard or watched.” This is one way they can be more prepared.
Then, maybe they can build up some kind of connection with the outside world. They cannot just say, “Okay, our church is just a group of people that lives isolated from the rest of the world.” They could [say this], but that also means that when they are in danger, nobody will know, and nobody will help them. To build the connections, they should probably know different churches and media sources and work with international organizations in case an emergency happens, so that they can spread the news through different channels, including NGOs, media, other churches, lawyers, etc. How can we help them to build up this kind of network?
Q: Do you have any ideas on how to help them build that kind of network?
A: Yes, because I went through all these things, I think I do. For instance, you guys hosted a lot of training in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this kind of networking could be more focused. For instance, how can we safely exchange information or use our mobile phones or computers? Maybe all the house church pastors and leaders can set up a regular plan to meet with one another once or twice a year. Maybe they can talk about their situation or meet each other face-to-face to build up a certain kind of bond, like a band of brothers. It could also be a kind of retreat for them, since all of the house church leaders in China are under a lot of pressure and are very busy. Most of them are not paid well. This kind of get-together could also be a retreat for them to take a break and relax for a little bit and then learn and share things together.
Q: They’d be encouraged, too. There’s other people, since there would be other people with them who have experienced similar things.
In order to prepare yourself [for persecution], your financial system should be invincible. You don’t want to leave any back door through which the government can hunt you down, like what happened in Wenzhou. They’re a couple. They were arrested and sentenced to 12 and 14 years [in prison]. That’s terrible! Just because there are some [factual errors] in their financial ledgers. Maybe [Huoshi Church] can also train them. Even though we don’t exist legally, our financial records are good. They are clean—very clean. You cannot say anything bad about them. So, this is something that would be very helpful. It’s kind of a process to build up your own accountability to your [church] members and to your donors and to international society.
Q: It really can’t hurt. It benefits you and it doesn’t leave a back door open, as you were saying.
A: Yeah, so this is also a very important thing, and another thing may be related more to spirituality. If some of the house church’s younger generation, can get more opportunities to be trained as future, it could be wonderful. They are many young people now who are becoming Christians all around China, but there’s no sufficient resources and help for them to grow. Maybe we can launch some kind of youth program for leaders of the next generation. For the young people, it’s really easy to learn finances and the digital things and the new ideas because they’re just open to learn….
If I think of any other things, I will tell you. At least, we can do these kinds of things, and it’s a lot of things to do, right?
Q: What have you found to be the most encouraging throughout this entire process? You’ve already given advice on how to help, but how can we as other Christians encourage the Chinese church?
A: For instance, the international society had actually made a lot of effort, and some [of their efforts] were very costly and difficult. For instance, a journalist visited my place herself. Unfortunately, all these stories are being covered in English, so my people cannot read or understand what’s going on in the outside world. The Chinese versions of the stories about how the international society is responding to our situation are very important, even critical, to encourage the people who are suffering from persecution—not only at my church, but also generally all churches. They can be encouraged. They will see “Okay, we are not alone! There are some people, organizations and states that are concerned about our situation. They will try their best to help us. So, we need some kind of newspaper, like China Aid. You can function like the media as well as translate the information from the outside world [specific to persecution cases] into Chinese and distribute all this information through all means—not only through your website, but also through social media, WeChat, Weibo, the telegram group or whatever we can use. This is a thing through which we can really help them to feel encouraged.
Q: Next, I’m going to ask a couple of questions about Yang Hua, because we just started our FreeYangHua campaign, and I think we have people interested in Yang Hua. Has anyone had any recent contact with Yang Hua?
A: I contact his wife almost every day. The last lawyer visit to Yang Hua was around 10 days ago. [I know this] because the lawyer, Chen Jiangang, told [China Aid president Bob Fu] right after the visit. I’m not sure of the exact date, but it was around 10 days or two weeks ago. That was the last time that lawyers visited Yang Hua. Recently, they increased security measures against his wife. Actually, they increased the security measure not only against Yang Hua’s wife, but also towards Su Tianfu (Pastor Su) and Pastor Su’s wife. I don’t why. Maybe some [important person] was going to visit Guiyang. I don’t know what’s going on, but just, all of a sudden, they increased the security level. [This happened] a couple of days ago, [maybe] five days ago. I don’t why. There is no reason. I cannot figure it out.
Q: We just got a report in from Wang Hongwu [Yang Hua’s wife] talking about how she was summoned to the police station for questioning, and I was starting to wonder if there was something more they were doing to her. They’re obviously watching her.
A: Yesterday, she told me that, in the past two days, the police have visited her house everyday … in the past couple of days, they started to follow her around wherever she goes.
Q: So she’s definitely being tracked?
A: Yes, definitely.
Q: Does anyone know how Yang Hua is doing?
A: Chen Jiangang is the only one who met Yang Hua face-to-face and talked to him in person.
Q: So, otherwise, there’s been no news about Yang?
A: Right. All the information about Yang Hua is coming through Chen Jiangang.
Q: How has the detention of Yang Hua and the persecution of Huoshi Church affected local attitudes towards Christianity in Guiyang?
A: Many smaller churches are very, very unsafe. Some of them must have compromised [with the government]. Still, I know there are churches that think Huoshi (Living Stone) is the only one the government hates, but what they hate is Christianity, not specific churches. The problem is, not everyone interprets the incident like that. Some of them say that [we experience persecution because] we are too radical, grew too fast and didn’t keep a low profile. Some people will say these things, but some people will say, “Okay, it’s not a single case. It’s part of the whole plan. If Living Stone can be shut down, then each one of us can be shut down at any time.” Anyway, I still see people come to [believe in] Jesus Christ.
Q: That’s awesome.
A: Yeah, that’s very positive. No matter how a certain pastor thinks, thought, or projects the situation to be, ordinary people just keep coming to Jesus Christ, so overall, nothing can stop [Christianity]. Maybe from time-to-time there is some setbacks, but, in general, people still go [to church].
Q: Is it usually a struggle for non-Christians to become Christians because of the persecution?
A: Yeah, definitely. Because after all of this, they know that to become a Christian means that the police might visit you regularly, or your boss might talk to you.
Q: I don’t think Americans understand what a life-changing decision that is, so it’s so inspiring to hear about people who choose to follow Jesus despite the hardships. Huoshi Church is the largest house church in Guiyang, is that correct?
Q: Do you know if non-Christians, in Guiyang, know about the situation?
A: It’s a big thing. Even some of my classmates who are not Christians know from somewhere. A lot of people know about this situation, because, as you can imagine, [Huoshi Church] has about 700 people, and a special [government] office has been set up to target them. There might be even more. I don’t know, because we don’t keep a list of the names. It could have been very dangerous, so we didn’t count how many people [attend the church]. That means the government doesn’t have a clue who is a member of the church and who is not, so they just boldly collect names and the contact information of the place the church members work and then talk to the boss of your workplace and talk to the community leader of where you live. So, a lot of people—tens of thousands—have heard about this news.
Q: It’s not necessarily being reported in the media, but people are hearing it from other places.
A: Yeah. For instance, I have three brothers and sisters, and I’m the only Christian. My brothers and sisters are going to be invited for tea [Editor’s Note: The Chinese police often invite someone for tea when they wish to interrogate them]. So you can imagine, if I am a Christian, they will not only talk to my parents but they will probably also visit my grandparents.
Q: So people will just find out by word-of-mouth?
A: Yeah. As you can imagine, that is huge.
Q: Hearing about what happened to Huoshi Church, have any non-believers in Guiyang expressed support? Either by sympathizing with you, or they’re otherwise demonstrating that they care.
A: Okay, Yu Lei could be a typical example. He is not a Christian. He hasn’t been baptized yet, but when he saw the [confidential] document and realized that the church was in danger, he took action without any hesitation. This endangered his life. Now, he has left [his home]. His mother is very old. His wife has to take care of his mother and their youngest son, who is only five years old, so it’s a very difficult time, but this guy is still [strong] … I believe he will become a very strong Christian in the future.
Q: What would you like people outside of China to know about religious freedom in China?
A: In general, I would maybe like to see more media coverage. I don’t know if it will work … [It would be great if] we can get some celebrities, for instance from Hollywood, like Tom Cruise [to become spokespeople for Christians in China]. I know that Tom Cruise is not a Christian, but there must be someone there, right?
Q: Right. Well, I know that Christian Bale supported Chen Guangcheng.
A: Yeah, like Chen Guangcheng’s [case]. That’s got to be huge. That would get the headlines of the newspapers.
Either that or, in some major international event, some people could talk about the religious situation in China. For instance, during the Olympic Games, the gold medal champions could say something. Like, if Jeremy Lin says something about freedom of religion in China … That’s exciting! Just imagine.
There must be a lot of Chinese students in the United States or in Europe—all over the world. Maybe we can talk to them. Most of them may not be Christians, but no matter what, if they stay in the United States, sooner or later some people will teach Christianity to them, no matter where they are or what kind of school they go to. Maybe we can go through some channels so that most of the overseas students can get involved in distributing all this news….
Q: I know a lot of Chinese students are resistant to the idea that there’s religious persecution in China. They believe that it’s just U.S. propaganda, and even some Americans think that it’s not that bad. What would you suggest as a way of convincing Americans and international students that religious persecution in China is real, and it’s bad?
A: For instance, if we can get Jeremy Lin to say something … it must be real, right? He’s like a hero! He’s like a superhero to some people! So, [their understanding of] the situation will be different. Maybe you can work on that and send some letters or do a little research about which Hollywood stars are Christians. For instance, some Hollywood stars, like Richard Gere, are Tibetan Buddhists. That’s major! We don’t have some kind of spokesman for Christianity in Hollywood, at least at the moment, but there must be someone who is a very good Christian there, like [Ronald] Reagan was, many years ago.
Q: I think it’s a great idea to contact celebrities, because they have influence among people across political parties, so it’s less divisive. Is there any other information that you would like to share?
A: I do not fully understand what the mandate of your job is, but I think it could be great if something could be covered by China Aid. That would be wonderful. I know that for instance … some Chinese government-controlled, so-called “professors” are running for the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Come on, that’s totally [wrong] … So maybe you should do something about that. I know that Bob already did a lot of things in Congress, the EU and the UN, but maybe we should put more energy in not only working on individual cases, but also changing laws, such as international or American law. For instance, there was a law in the 1980’s that if you were a victim of persecution, you cannot easily travel to the United States. Then, [later] in the 1980’s, a law passed that victims of religious persecution can apply for a certain kind of [visa]. A law can better help the situation. It could be any kind of law, for instance, if we can make an international law and the U.N. says that, if any country sets up a law that violates human rights, the international society will consider that law illegal in the framework of the international law. If you sign the human rights treaty, you have to recognize the international law first, then your national law, then your regulations. So, if we can mobilize the international society to do these kinds of things, or if we can do them nationally, or in the future, [says that U.S. government will] hunt them down if they do something really bad. We not only have a duty to report the individual cases, but we also have a broader mission to enforce the law or contribute to the legal system.
China Aid Media Team
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