Tom Hardie meets courageous Christians who have challenged the Chinese state yet known God’s amazing provision in the midst of their suffering.
‘One minute my little son was playing with a mobile phone, the next a police officer had knocked it out of his hand and put a gun to his head.’
The memory of that terrifying day security officials surrounded him and his family is seared in the memory of Chinese Christian lawyer Chen Jiangang.
Chen, his wife and two young sons and another couple had tried to escape China but were picked up near the border. The party were taken back – each in a separate vehicle – to Beijing where Chen was a renowned human rights lawyer now discredited by the Chinese Communist Party. Chen had had the audacity to represent those despised by the state and was warned that if he carried on with his work he would be ‘forcibly disappeared’.
‘It wasn’t so much that that worried me but the threats to my family,’ he told Release International in a recent interview. ‘They forced the local school to bar my children so they could not get an education and we were forced to move home several times under pressure from the authorities.’
Thankfully Chen made contact with our partners, ChinaAid, who were able to advise him about leaving the country before it was too late.
Chen, who represented leading human rights lawyers Xie Yang and Jiang Tianyong, had come to faith in Christ a few years earlier. This newfound belief informed and inspired his work and he sees God’s hand in all he went through.
‘The scripture that helped me the most during those difficult days was Psalm 23,’ he said. Christians are widely represented among the lawyers who are paying a heavy price for representing those accused of ‘state subversion’ – a catch-all charge used to target anyone the authorities believe is challenging the state’s authority such as church leaders.
Two weeks after being warned that he would be forcibly disappeared Chen and his family were able to escape China by fleeing to Myanmar.
Similarly accused was Peter Li, a former judge who ended up in prison for 14 years simply for trying to help provide justice for the poor.
Peter was brought up in a Christian family but it was only while in prison that his faith took on a greater depth and he was instrumental in leading some 50 prisoners to faith in Christ. Among them was an underworld gang boss who became a close friend.
In Chinese prisons all religious materials are allowed except for Bibles, so the scriptures are treasured by believers and kept away from the eyes of the guards.
During his time behind bars Peter saved up enough money to bribe a worker who was able to source a Bible for him. The book became treasured by the Christian prisoners and had to be hidden.
‘One day,’ said Peter, ‘the guards found our Bible and tried to take it from us but my close friend, the former gangster, refused to hand it over. They then beat him to death.’
Peter showed me a photograph of the man’s battered corpse. ‘He would not let the Bible go,’ he said, ‘and paid for it with his life.’
As with the lawyer Chen, Psalm 23 is also the treasured scripture of ethnic Kyrgyz Christian Ovalbek Turdakun, who spent ten months in a Chinese concentration camp in Xinjiang province.
As other prisoners sang communist songs to ‘re-educate’ them under the watchful attention of the guards, Ovalbek took the opportunity to worship Jesus, reciting the psalm out loud and singing ‘Hallelujah!’. At shower time he used the noise of the water to drown out his voice from the microphones so that he could share the gospel with the inmates beside him.
He testifies to the presence of God throughout his detention in 2018, despite torture and being kept under constant surveillance. Cameras on walls allowed guards constantly to monitor the prisoners. ‘I did not feel alone; I knew God was with me. I did not suffer the same ill-effects on my health as badly as other prisoners.’
Ovalbek, like his cellmates, was forcibly injected with various treatments purportedly vaccines but which caused debilitating side-effects such as pain in their ears, hands and feet, and trouble walking.
He was also tied into the ‘tiger chair’, a piece of steel furniture used to punish prisoners, so-called because if they moved the restraints would tighten up or ‘bite back’.
‘God never forsook me; He was with me throughout it all’
Amazingly, although the other prisoners were allowed only one 20-minute visit from family a month, Ovalbek was granted two-hour visits every week!
‘My family were also allowed to bring in meals for me whereas normally you weren’t allowed to bring in even a sunflower seed. God turned the impossible to the possible. These were things I had heard about before but now I experienced them for myself.’
Not only that but contrary to all known practice the Government actually supplied his family (wife Zhyldyz and son Daniyel) with food during the time that he was in prison. When Joseph returned home he was overwhelmed to see all the supplies that had been provided by both relatives and officials. It was a miracle and an answer to prayer. Ovalbek, like other prisoners, had feared that his family would starve because there is no support for the families of those who are put in state camps.
‘Being in the camp strengthened my faith,’ he told Release. ‘I was there for ten months and then eight months under house arrest. After that eight months we finished the food but then God made a way for us to leave the country.’
He added: ‘God never forsook me; He was with me throughout it all. I am grateful to China Aid, Release International’s partner, for helping me and my family to get out.’
After being granted ‘humanitarian status’ by the US, Ovalbek, who holds no bitterness or unforgiveness towards the Chinese authorities, described his experiences in the camp at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington DC in June.
A Christian lawyer who has suffered the wrath of the Chinese state for his activities representing persecuted Christians and other minorities is Jiang Tianyong. We spoke to his wife Bianling Jin, who told us how her husband was tied in a marble ‘tiger’ chair for 24 hours in a detention centre.
‘It had such an impact on his body that there are things he can no longer physically do,’ she said.
Jiang who is still in China, confined to his home because of Covid restrictions, was beaten by the police in 2014 as a result of his human rights work, suffering eight broken ribs. Two years later he disappeared for a couple of months and was then sentenced to two years in prison. On his release he was put under house arrest for a further three years and deprived of his political rights.
‘We have been separated for nine years now,’ Jin told us. ‘Every day I pray for my husband and his health. Please pray with us that he can leave China and that we can be reunited.’
Despite the deteriorating situation inside the country, our partner Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, which supports persecuted believers, is optimistic for the future of the church, and by extension, the nation itself. ‘Persecution is not a new thing. I think God will use this new wave of persecution to revive the church. One study by a university in the US concluded that there are 100 million to 130 million Christians in China already and estimates that by 2030 there will be 224 million, based on a lesser degree of persecution. Fastest growth is when persecution is worse so from that perspective we can say that President Xi Jinping is in fact a faithful servant of God!’
If Bob is right, then given the intensification of persecution under President Xi Jinping, it looks like the church in China is on course for a period of significant growth!
Camps, ‘Nazification’ and total loyalty
According to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, they are known as ‘vocational training centres’ – as if their purpose is job reskilling. These camps are predominantly sited in Xinjiang province and the Uyghur Autonomous Region.
‘The CCP propaganda makes these camps out to be about “de-extreminisation” or mind transformation,’ said Bob Fu of ChinaAid. ‘In essence if you do not see the CCP as your saviour then you are branded an extremist.’
As part of its attempt to control all aspects of life, the CCP is ruthlessly pursuing a policy of ‘sinicisation’ – forcing Christians to make their faith compatible with communist ideology.
‘There was a time when the state church was allowed to function and generally only the unregistered house churches were targeted by the authorities but now Xi makes no distinction,’ said Bob.
‘He is only interested in total loyalty to the CCP and to himself so under Xi the state’s Three Self Patriotic (TSP) churches have been shut down in the name of sinicisation, which at least has meant the TSP congregations have joined the house church movement! As a church leader if you are only 70 to 80 per cent loyal, then you are done for. Churches were closed during the Covid lockdown regime, so now you need a legitimate reason to re-open and unless you match the criteria of the CCP for clergy you will be removed from your position.’
In order to re-open, churches are required to install face-recognition cameras from the pulpit to the four corners of the church building. This is so that no one under the age of 18, party members, CCP youth members, civil servants or military personnel attends.
Churches that incorporate these stringent measures and are allowed to open then have to demonstrate their total loyalty, eg, their teaching must be completely compatible with communist ideology.
Bob said: ‘The CCP must be praised. Portraits of Chairman Mao and President Xi are displayed on the pulpit either side of the cross. Communist party anthems have to be sung before the doxology can be said. It is just like the nazification of Germany in the 1930s when churches were forced to praise “the great leader”.’
Unsurprisingly interaction with foreigners, unless explicitly approved at provincial level, can result in accusations of ‘subversion of state power’.
‘Several Christians have been jailed for legally travelling to Kuala Lumpur for a Bible conference where an Indonesian was the key speaker two years ago. The charge was made retrospectively and they are still being held,’ said Bob.
The printing of scripture is also now illegal unless authorised by the Government. ‘One Christian couple were sentenced to 12 years’ detention for printing Bibles.’
‘We need to pray more earnestly and with targeted prayers,’ said Bob.
‘The CCP want to target children and the availability of the Bible. All Bible apps have been taken down and in the past few years millions of Christian children have been ordered to renounce their faith in front of their class or school and even with police in attendance. Parents are coerced and action is taken against them if they don’t agree.‘
‘We need to equip the children so they can get the word of God.’
He said teachers, doctors and nurses were forbidden from practising their faith.
‘Pray for those in prison too, Christians such as John Cao, whose only crime was managing schools, and Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church, who was given a nine-year sentence for a sermon on John 3:16 and urging President Xi to repent and turn to Christ. Six hundred members of the church have suffered arrest and some elders are still in prison.‘
‘We must remember and pray for them.’
THE 709 CRACKDOWN
On July 9, 2015, and in the days following, 200 lawyers and human rights activists – a significant number of them Christian – were rounded up. They were tortured and their families were persecuted and from that point on almost all human rights lawyers in China have been disbarred.
SKY’S THE LIMIT
I’ve just finished interviewing Christian lawyer Chen Jiangang and we move outside to take some photos in the afternoon Texan sun. It’s topping 100 degrees and we don’t want to stay out too long but just as we are about to take his picture Chen stretches out his arms and lifts them up to the blue skies in thanks to God for his freedom.
It’s hard to appreciate just how much it means for someone who has spent so much time under constant surveillance, never knowing when the police will stop you and take you in for questioning for no justifiable reason.
‘The communist party has ruined China. Even the sky is a terrible colour because of their policy that has led to pollution,’ he declares.
You realise it is the perfect metaphor for the way the Chinese Communist Party is poisoning the nation and its people. Even the air is toxic.
But thank God that that’s not the end of the story for China, or the church in this communist nation. The worse the persecution, it seems, the more people are turning in faith to Christ. If current trends continue, says ChinaAid, by the end of the decade China will become ‘the largest Christian country’!
That’s a staggering thought. If that proves accurate then it puts in a whole new light the quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and generally viewed in terms of economic and military might: ‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’. Just think what a China awakened to the truth of the gospel could do!
PLEASE HELP CHRISTIAN PRISONERS AND THEIR FAMILIES
Release International helps Christian prisoners of faith and their families around the world in the name of Jesus.
To support this vital ministry to courageous believers, we depend on the gifts and prayers of Christians in the UK and Ireland.
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• Provide practical help and pastoral care for prisoners and their families
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LATEST PODCAST AND SPEAKER TOUR
Hear Bob Fu discuss his forthcoming speaker tour to the UK; his own story of faith and imprisonment in China and the opposition and threats he and his family faced more recently in Texas.
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