A call to prayer circulated last week among China’s house churches to demand the release of two Christian missionaries who have been detained since July in Shandong province. 

Pastor Qin Sifeng and Sister Su Minjun allegedly crossed some “red line” for the communist regime that aims to completely eradicate any kind of spiritual belief throughout China.  

As reported by Bitter Winter, the detained missionaries are part of the Beijing Lampstand Christian Church and had started preaching the Christian belief in the Yunnan area, about 1,500 miles from Beijing. 

In July, on one of the trips to Yunnan, when they were passing through Shandong province, they were intercepted by the police and sent to a detention center in the city of Zibo. They were accused of “illegal commercial operations” for having printed and distributed an unauthorized songbook.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tolerance of house churches has decreased in recent years and going about attempting to convert people in other regions is not allowed. It is a red line that must not be crossed to avoid reprisals from the regime.   

What are house churches?

House churches are those that have not registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the CCP’s official Protestant church. Politically, they are not legally recognized and do not enjoy legal rights, such as the right to own property or assemble. Therefore, they are always at risk of having their services closed, their property confiscated, and their leaders prevented from traveling or speaking in public. Most Chinese Protestants belong to these house churches

Their origins date back to the early 20th century when a series of local preachers such as Beijing pastor Wang Mingdao and itinerant preacher John Sung ignited revivals across China seeking to spread the Christian gospel. 

After the CCP gained control in 1949, well-known Christian leader Wu Yaozong wrote and published “The Christian Manifesto,” which publicly endorsed the CCP’s policy of supervising the church for the “sake of national unity” and urged all Protestant Christians to follow suit and join the TSPM. 

However, China’s independent churches, championed by Wang Mingdao, strongly resisted the TSPM both because of their allegiance to a political entity and their freedom-based theological leanings. 

Because they refused to join the TSPM, an entire generation of independent pastors in China were severely persecuted and their churches forced to close. These Christians often met in undisclosed locations, such as individual houses or in fields, thus earning the name “house church.”

The CCP and religion in China

The CCP is officially atheist and over time has failed to completely eradicate religions in China despite having committed the worst crimes and massacres to this end. 

Not even after launching the brutal Cultural Revolution in 1966 was it possible to abolish the beliefs of the people. That is why the CCP has implemented different strategies to intervene, modify, and control religious movements to “Sinicize” religion. This means that all religious communities must be led by the Party, controlled by the Party, and support the Party. 

To understand what the religious situation is like in China, it is interesting to apply the theory of markets developed by sociologist Fenggang Yang in 2006. This theory describes the existence of three religious “markets”: red, black, and gray.

The “red market” encompasses the five officially recognized religious bodies established by the CCP. These represent Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism. When Chinese propaganda claims that religion in China is free and even supported by CCP money, it is referring to these five government-controlled bodies.

The “black market” refers to the list of religious groups considered Xie Jiao or “illegal cults” by the CCP.  These movements are taken as a threat to its power and control and should be eradicated at any cost. 

Promulgating Xie Jiao lists is a practice that dates back to the Ming era and was revived in the late 1990s when the CCP began a brutal persecution of the ancient discipline Falun Gong. Given the growing popularity of this qigong practice, the regime assumed it to be a major social danger and determined that it should be “eradicated like tumors.” Several other groups were added to the xie jiao list and were ruthlessly persecuted.

The “gray market” includes churches, communities, mosques, and temples that are not part of the red market, that is they refuse to join the five official religious organizations, but are not listed as xie jiao. 

Religious organizations in the gray market are illegal, but being active in one of them (as opposed to being active in a xie jiao) is not a crime. Most Protestant house churches today are part of this market.

The gray market has been alternately persecuted and relatively tolerated for decades, until the new Regulations on Religious Affairs implemented in 2018 signaled the CCP’s intention to no longer tolerate them.

This regulation aims to limit the activity of legal religious organizations in the red market, has promised to eliminate the gray market by forcing their communities to join the red market, and announced new crackdowns on the black market.

The imprisonment of missionaries Qi and Su after they attempted to preach the faith in Yunnan is perhaps a reminder to the house churches that today the regime’s tolerance of religious practices not under its control remains zero.

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