CHINA: Poetic injustice, jailed pastor expresses faith through verse

Earlier this year Chinese pastor John Cao was released after serving a seven-year sentence but his freedom of movement is still restricted. He recently spoke about both his time behind bars and his current circumstances.


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‘Why have I been put in jail?’
That was the question that nagged at John Cao after he was arrested by Chinese officials in Yunnan province back in March 2017.

Chinese-born John, who had lived with his family for a number of years in the US, had been running schools for needy children in the northern part of Myanmar. ‘People had no food or clothes. Basically they were naked. I brought clothes, food, medicine into this place,’ he said.

He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was crossing the border from China into Myanmar to resource these schools. After his arrest his family claimed that Chinese officials were aware of his work and even helped him cross the border on occasions.

However, he was arrested and charged with ‘organising illegal border crossings’. The following year he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 20,000 yuan (about £2,250). A subsequent appeal was postponed seven times, before the sentence was upheld. ‘We set up schools and actually taught them Chinese – which is also good for the Chinese Government! So I often asked, “What’s wrong? Why put me in jail for seven years?”

‘But suddenly I understood. That was the beginning of a movement by the Chinese Communist Party to persecute Chinese Christians – mainly those in the underground house churches. That is really the point. They didn’t just put me in jail; that was the beginning of persecution against the underground house church movement. They have put so many behind bars. That is an antichrist movement.’

‘I baptised him with rain water’

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John (pictured) spent the first two-and-a-half years in a detention centre. Food was sparse and he quickly lost 40 lbs in weight. Then, in 2019, he was transferred to a prison. He found himself in a cell with ten people sleeping together on a single, large bed! ‘The good thing was I was able to share Jesus Christ with the people on my left and on my right! So the hearts of the two guys were opened by the Spirit to believe in Jesus Christ. Both of them accepted him as their Lord.’ Shortly after this, John managed to collect water in a bucket, during heavy rain, and poured it over them to baptise them!

‘Then the officers found out and moved me to another room. So I started over again!’

Before too long John led two more men to faith in Christ. One was facing a death sentence for drug smuggling. ‘Of course he was totally desperate and hopeless but after he accepted Christ he said to me he felt totally relieved,’ said John. ‘I baptised him in the same way, with rain water.’

During the next four years John was severely restricted in terms of letters he could receive from family and friends. When his mother copied a few Bible verses and put them into a letter this was confiscated by the authorities.

‘My mother travelled more than 20 hours by train to visit me. We talked over a phone through a window and the officers listened to our conversation. My mother said Pastor so-and-so is praying for you – and the conversation was then cut off immediately. My mother had travelled all those hours but was only able to talk for three minutes because she had mentioned someone was praying for me. They didn’t like the word “prayer”.

‘I was not allowed to do anything for my faith. I could not pray. At first I was kneeling down to pray every day but then they stopped me. So I started to pray by lying down on my bed as if sleeping, with my face down.’

John was not allowed a Bible or even other books. So he started composing poems. ‘I had never composed a poem before. I had to write in very “unclear” language, or the police wouldn’t have allowed me to send them to my mother. It required wisdom. I started to praise my God and to express my thanks to my Lord and how I was understanding my life in prison and how I can live for Jesus Christ.’

A selection of John’s poems were subsequently published by Release International’s partner, ChinaAid, as Living Lyrics: Poems from Prison. One of them includes the following verse:

You can take away my freedom, but you can’t take my prayers.

My prayers have wings and leap over the towering iron mesh wall.

Many brothers and sisters have heard them.

They fly freely every day and reach Heaven above the blue sky.

In March of this year John was released from prison. However, the authorities have not given him his Chinese ID papers, which means he is not free to travel around China. ‘I can move around freely in my city. I don’t see anyone following me,’ he said. ‘But I am unable to travel. I can only stay in my city. I have been removed from a small prison into a big prison that is my city!’

Although he has lived in the US John has retained his Chinese citizenship. ‘With Chinese citizenship I am able to come into China without being stopped. I love America just as much as I love China! I love China because I want to share Jesus Christ with Chinese people!’

John expressed his thanks to those who prayed for him during his time in prison. He added: ‘I would encourage you to continue to pray and show your solidarity towards all those people who are behind bars [for their faith in Christ]. Pray also for the full recovery of my civil rights and citizenship and to be able to travel as before.’

Chinese Christians braced for a ‘harsh winter’

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Xi Jinping has intensified China’s crackdown on believers.

According to Release International’s partner ChinaAid, ‘a harsh winter is descending upon Chinese Christianity.’ Following the pattern of recent years, since the beginning of 2024, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities under President Xi Jinping have significantly intensified their crackdown on house churches. Christianity is now firmly viewed as a tool of the state used to bolster the CCP’s authoritarian rule. The church should deliver patriotic education, interpret doctrines in accordance with core socialist values, and promote ‘Xi Jinping thought’. As a result unregistered house churches are aggressively targeted and, increasingly, pastors are arrested and given harsh prison sentences.

For example, ChinaAid reports that since July 2022 members of the Xi’an Church of Abundance have been receiving oral summonses and home visits from the police and some residences have been searched. According to the summoned believers, officers threatened them in relation to their jobs and children’s schooling while demanding that they surrendered church offerings, provided false testimonies, and accused their pastor of fraud and spreading cults.

Subsequently, in August 2022, the police detained the church pastor, Lian Changnian, on the charge of ‘fraud’ and placed him under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ along with two other pastors. After further police intimidation and harassment of church members, the case entered court in January 2024 and if found guilty the pastors could face five years in prison. The Xi’an Church of Abundance is affiliated with the China Gospel Fellowship, a national house church movement with 10,000,000 congregants. It is one of the most developed house churches in China.


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