By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)– A major Christian church in China’s central Henan province was “paralyzed” Sunday, November 17, after its pastor, his sisters and dozens of church workers were detained, local Christians told BosNewsLife.
“Up to now a total of more than 20 workers of the Nanle County Christian Church were arrested,” said Zhang Yuenyuen, the daughter of detained Pastor Zhang Xiaoje.
“Because all the church workers are caught, my sister and I fled and are in hiding,” she told BosNewsLife in translated remarks. Yuenyuen suggested that the number of detained believers may be higher, but said the exact figure was difficult to determine yet.
The detentions began Saturday, November 16, when Pastor Zhang was surrounded by a dozen policemen, Christians said.
“In the morning of November 16, about 9.30 am local time, Pastor Zhang was tricked by local security chief Li and others into talks with officials at his church. This was a trap as suddenly a dozen police officers came to tied up Pastor Zhang, without a warrant or other any relevant legal procedures,” the church told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Yuenyuen said the exact whereabouts of her father and coworkers Wu Guishan and Zhao Guoli were unknown. Additionally “his parents and one of my aunts were in the hospital. Two other aunts were also detained. My sister and I fled home; many coworkers and their families are detained and severely tortured,” she added, speaking from an undisclosed location in China.
Christians also told BosNewsLife that the pastor’s sisters were missing as part of a crackdown by authorities on the popular church and other congregations.
The detentions were remarkable as the Nanle County Christian Church is part of the state-sanctioned Protestant Three-Self Church denomination.
A Chinese Christian with close knowledge about the church, who identifies himself publicly only as Brother John for security reasons, suggested to BosNewsLife that the popular pastor was apparently seen as a threat by Communist authorities.
“Pastor Zhang had been voted to be heading the government sponsored church systems. Pastor Zhang is respected inside and outside church because of his services in the communities around. However, the local government objected to him,” Brother John explained.
The crackdown comes less than two days after China’s Communist Party promised to abolish labor camps where Christians are known to have been held along with other prisoners of conscience.
Some 400 party officials at the annual closed-door party gathering, known as Third Plenum, also promised to end the one-child policy, which Christian rights activists said led to many forced abortions.
The detentions of Christians are part of a wider crackdown and an official warning that the announced reforms do not mean China’s government will allow unlimited religious freedom, local Christians say.
“Today, Sunday, November 17, is the Lord’s day. Yet each church was guarded by police at the gate. They captured anyone attempting to enter the churches,” in the region, more than six hours drive from the capital Beijing, Yuenyuen told BosNewsLife.
“The government in our county ordered school and offices to open on Sunday. They prohibited any appeal to high government bodies, telling students not to believe Jesus and go home to give that message to their parents,” she added.
She accused government workers “disguised as Pastor Zhang” of publishing false confessions on the Internet to “calm public opinion and cover-up their illegal actions.”
Yuenyuen expressed concern about the future of her father’s church. “Today is Sunday and the church was blocked by police.” She alleged that security forces began to ” torture more than 20 detainees,” referring to the arrested church members.
Additionally, funds to build a new church for the rapidly expanding congregation are frozen by authorities, she said. “The whole church is paralyzed”.
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on the latest stand-off. It comes amid concerns within China’s Communist leadership about the uncontrolled spread of Christianity, which they view as a threat to the atheistic oriented Communist system, according to a BosNewsLife analyze.
There are as many as 130 million Christians in China, according to church and Communist party estimates, the world’s largest growing Christian group.