For China’s Underground Church, Celebrating Christmas This Year Wasn’t Easy

The meeting place of Early Rain Covenant church on the 23rd floor of an office building in Chengdu, Sichuan, before authorities shut it down and arrested its pastor.(Peter Pen/for the Times)

Li Chengju glared at her prison interrogator as he pressed her to renounce her Christian church and condemn her pastor.

Her captor warned she would not be so lucky as the pastor, who was locked in secret detention but at least might get a day in court.

“Look at you. You sweep the floors at church,” the interrogator said. “You think you’re getting a trial like your pastor? You don’t qualify.”

Li still refused to sign the document disowning her church.

“I’m a citizen who has faith,” she told the interrogator. “God knows everything you are doing and He will judge you one day.”

Then she repeated a saying she’d heard at church about the Chinese president: “Xi Jinping is sinning against God. If he doesn’t repent, he will be judged by God.”

Li, who recounted her detention in a recent interview with The Times, belonged to the Early Rain Covenant Church, which authorities here in Chengdu dissolved late last year as part of a sweeping campaign by the government to rein in the country’s fastest-growing religion: Protestant Christianity.

The state-sanctioned Three-Self Church has long been the only legal place for Christians to worship in China, even as the country saw a proliferation of so-called house churches — congregations such as Early Rain that meet in office buildings, hotel conference rooms and other makeshift sanctuaries.

The government calls its campaign “Sinicization” — a euphemism for turning faith into a tool for indoctrination in Chinese Communist Party ideology. The official five-year plan, issued in 2018, calls for inserting “patriotic education” and “socialist core values” into churches, revising the Bible and using church sermons to enforce party leadership and reject foreign influences.

One pastor in Hong Kong, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published, said the message was made clear when a group of Chinese officials visited in 2016.

“You keep talking about separation of church and state,” he said they told him and other theologians. “But Chinese tradition is that state leads and church follows…. In China, you are a tool to transform the people.”

The pastor said the campaign in some ways was repeating history.

In the 1950s, the newly established People’s Republic of China co-opted Protestant leaders with the Three-Self Church’s anti-colonial slogan: “Self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.”

But by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, all religion was violently purged. Even the Three-Self Church was not immune, and many of its founders were tortured, sent to labor camps and worked to death.

The house church movement sprang up at the end of the Cultural Revolution, starting in rural areas, where mass conversion in provinces like Henan brought the number of Christians to 3 million by 1982. It rapidly spread to cities in the 1980s and 1990s, as rural preachers followed migrant workers and Christianity became increasingly attractive to university students disillusioned by the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, Alice Su