Persecution is spreading against even the official state-sanctioned church in China. A Release partner says the government has set a quota to close two-thirds of the official churches.
Pastor Zhang Shaojie’s trouble began when he posted plans to build a new church. Not a secret, underground church, but a state-approved church building, Bible school and ministry centre.
The problem wasn’t politics, but corruption. The plot of land was valuable, and local government officials wanted it for themselves.
They planned to seize the plot and sell it to developers at a huge profit, so Pastor Zhang and his church members decided to go to Beijing to petition for the land.
But they were stopped.
In 2014 Pastor Zhang was sentenced to 12 years’ in prison on charges of public disorder and fraud. Release and its partner, China Aid, believe those charges were trumped up to remove the Pastor and take the land belonging to Nunle County Christian Church.
Since then, Pastor Zhang has been starved and tortured in prison. His health is now in a critical condition. And officials have refused to let him appeal his sentence.
Bob Fu from China Aid takes up the story with Andrew Boyd…
Bob Fu, President of China Aid: Pastor Zhang’s case shows how hypocritical the Chinese regime has shown itself.
They always declared to the international community as long as you joined the government-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement Church, you will be protected, you will be okay. And Pastor Zhang received a 12-year sentence for simply speaking up for the believers in his congregation, who received enormous social injustice. And with the government in collaboration with those commercial builders they wanted to grab the church’s land for commercial use.
Andrew Boyd: So this is persecution linked to corruption?
Bob: Absolutely this is persecution linked to corruption. Because of Pastor Zhang’s insistence, without compromise, he was hated and he was caught and then he was arrested and sentenced to this long sentence.
Not only Pastor Zhang was sentenced to all these years. All of his co-workers, the main leaders in that Three Self Church in Nanle County were arrested and sentenced.
Of course, most of them have been released except Pastor Zhang. He was being treated very terribly in prison, but we do learn that he has a very uplifting spirit. The prison authority sees him as a moral asset even, because as a pastor he was not only taking care of himself, he actually used the funding his family gave to him to support other vulnerable prisoners, by feeding them.
Andrew: So he has been pastoring others?
Bob: Yes, he was even leading a Bible study.
Andrew: So the authorities actually appreciate the good work is doing – is that what you’re saying?
Bob: Yes, the prison authorities knew that he was a good Christian, and yet the Chinese security officers treated him very badly.
Andrew: So how is he now? What’s his condition?
Bob: We heard that in his current prison he was still treated pretty roughly. He was not allowed to take showers. Sometimes he would receive threats by saying that if he does not repent – they’ve tried to force him to give up his leadership in the Nanle Church. Remember, he was forcibly removed from his pastoral leadership. He was the chairman of the Three Self Patriotic Movement of the whole of Nanle County. He was also the Nanle County’s People’s representative, like a city councilman.
The Chinese authorities tried to defame him, tried to break his will; tried to ask him to volunteer to give up, but he refused to do that. Because of that, he received some harsh treatment.
Andrew: Is he okay? Is he in good health?
Bob: Right now, I have heard that he is fine.
Andrew: Which prison is he in?
Bob: He is in Number Two Henan prison, I think.
Andrew: Let’s revisit something you said a moment ago, that he was a leader of the official state-sanctioned, state-approved, legitimate, lawful church, but all this has happened to him. We know that there’s been a clampdown of the law, the law was tightened in 2018. It’s been long said that if you are lawful and the church you go to is state-approved, you will be left alone. But what is the situation now facing Christians who have stayed in the state-approved church movement?
Bob: That is exactly happening in China after President Xijinping passed this new regulation of religious affairs on Feb 1, 2018. On that first day after this new regulation took effect, in Henan province alone, we learned that at least 10,000 churches were totally banned and closed, in one province. That’s Pastor Zhang Shaojie’s province, Henan province. So the majority of them, ironically, are actually Three Self Patriotic Movement official churches.
Andrew: So there’s no protection if you stay within the law?
Bob: That’s right; the government actually has a quota to shut down two-thirds of the government-sanctioned church, no matter what. So those who are allowed to exist have to execute the so-called official sinicization campaign, which means every morning on Sunday, all the church congregations have to rise up singing the Communist Party’s national anthem as the first act of worship.
Andrew: Sinicization means actually to make it more Chinese?
Bob: Yes, but actually to be more clear, it is to make it more like the Communist version.
Andrew: Which, of course, is an atheist party, so you have an atheist party in control of the church, which is a contradiction in terms.
Bob: It is. To make your religion of Christianity compatible with the Communist Party.
Andrew: Which is atheism – it doesn’t work, does it?
Bob: So there’s been a loss of the church. Crosses were also forcibly demolished and destroyed in Henan province. If those leaders, like Zhang Shaojie show any defiance it means they are immediately dismissed and possibly sent to prison, too.
Andrew: China Aid is a partner of Release International. How has China Aid been able to help Pastor Zhang?
Bob: As soon as we learned about the situation, although he belongs to the government-sanctioned church, because what he did was out of Christian conviction and from the heart of the gospel, so we immediately started praying for him and his family. We arranged for a number of human rights lawyers to represent him and his fellow workers, including his family members.
And then partnering with Release International we had a campaign, financially supporting many of those families of prisoners including Pastor Zhang. And we, of course, have spoken very, very publicly in the international arena.
When one of his daughters, Esther and her family, were facing a very imminent life threat, we rescued her and her husband and her whole family into the United States. So they are now living in Texas.
Andrew: Do you have any message for Release International supporters supporting you in your work?
Bob: We are very thankful. Release International is really one of the first Christian organisations that came to partner with China Aid, taking action in support of the church and those who are persecuted, including Pastor Zhang and his family. And several members from Release International travelled from Northern Ireland to Henan, to Nanle County, to visit the wife and children of Pastor Zhang and some of his fellow co-workers and families.
You guys sent the first group up to personally visit and so far it is the only group actually who were able to get there, at huge personal risk. And the family members of Pastor Zhang and his fellow co-workers have been greatly encouraged by that.