Sunday worship services without the man who was seen as their spiritual leader. Rev. Allen Yuan Xiangchen, regarded as one of the founders of China's unofficial Protestant church movement, was laid to rest this week in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, the Chinese capital, church sources said.
Some 2,500 people attended the funeral service, mostly from house churches. Plain-clothed policemen prevented another thousand from participating, reported AsiaNews, a Christian news website.
Allen Yuan died at the age of 91 in a Beijing hospital on August 16, while he was reportedly surrounded by his wife and six children. "Allen Yuan is safely home where he has received his crown of life," said Christian human rights group Voice Of the Martyrs (VOM).
The pastor was reportedly highly respected by members of the unofficial Protestant Church movement for his steadfast opposition to the state-run church, despite suffering in jails and labor camps for nearly 22 years.
Merv Knight, Executive Director of VOM Australia recalled how "in their cramped room in Beijing" Mr. and Mrs. Yuan had above their bed a Bible verse "that in many ways was the staff of their life." It was Rev. 2:10 - "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life."
Once, invited to the White House, he refused a breakfast prayer meeting because he did not want to worship with a member of the official Protestant Church, AsiaNews reported.
The Chinese government allows religious activities only within official and registered patriotic associations, which critics say function as virtual tools of control for the Chinese Communist Party over religious life in the various communities.
Yuan began his mission after Japan’s surrender in 1945, helped by a Norwegian clergyman. He opened a prayer room in Beijing to preach the Gospel. Initially every year saw him baptize 20 to 30 people, but that number grew throughout the years, church experts said.
In 1950, a year after the Communist takeover, the government set up the Three Self Patriotic Movement to develop China-centered national churches under party control. Yuan and other pastors refused to join and were eventually arrested in the 1950's. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1958 "for counter-revolutionary crimes."
"During those years in prison my wife suffered untold hardships in bringing up the children. I was sent to near the Russian border doing farm work, growing rice. Wang Ming Dao [a fellow pastor also sentenced to the camp] and I thought we would die martyrs there..." he wrote in testimonies released by VOM.
"In the labor camp it was very cold. food was bad, and the work was hard, but in 22 years I never once got sick. I was thin and wore glasses, but I came back alive; many did not. I also had no Bible for the 22 years and there were no other Protestant Christians there. I met only four Catholic priests. They were in the same situation I was in; they refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association."
Yuan was released in 1979 and went back "to do God’s work." His friends said he never saw his mission as being “underground” and never concealed what he did including massive baptism services, human rights activists claimed.
VOM said it published evidence in 2004 "of 700 baptisms in one day. Just about a month ago the police went to great lengths to prevent the baptisms taking place but still Br. Allen's team managed to baptize a few hundred new believers. Since then covert services have continued and the number of baptisms this year already exceeds 700."
"He was never fearful as the leader of the house church in Beijing. He was never hiding anything he was doing," Australian missionary John Short, who knew Yuan, reportedly said.
Before his death, Allen Yuan was quoted as asking his friends to pray "for the lost millions of China, for the newcomers and new believers, for the leaders our country."
Protestants in the official Church (the Three Self Patriotic Movement) comprise of some ten million people, according to official estimates. In the unofficial Protestant house churches, the number of faithful is estimated at over 50 million.
"We celebrate the life and work of Brother Allen Yuan, we pray for his widow and children who remain and we rejoice that he has passed from life to life abundant," VOM said in a statement seen by BosNewsLife. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reports from China and Australia).