Jailing of Protestant pastor China seen as a warning shot

A pilgrimage honouring Mary on the outskirts of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. File photo: CNS/Reuters

by Michael Sainsbury 

China’s ruling Communist Party has fired a warning shot at the fast-growing underground Protestant Churches in the country by jailing Wang Yi, founder of Sichuan province’s Early Rain Covenant Church, for nine years after a secret trial where he had no legal representation. The sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activities” became public on December 29 when the court that convicted the preacher issued its judgment. The State Department of the United States (US) has demanded his immediate release.

Wang was found guilty during a closed-door trial on December 26 on what the State Department described as “trumped-up charges.” He and his wife, Jiang Rong, were arrested with dozens of other congregants on 9 December 2018, during a crackdown on Chengdu’s largest unregistered church (Sunday Examiner, 23 December 2018).

Wang has been deprived of his political rights for three years and 50,000 yuan ($55,800) of his personal property was confiscated as part of his sentencing. Jiang’s whereabouts remain unknown, although a congregant posted on the Internet that she was being held under residential surveillance.

“This country is launching a war against the soul. Although the ranking of this war is not the most advanced, it is the most important war. In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war, but they have established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, will never capitulate nor be conquered: the soul of man … so they are destined to lose this war and are doomed to fail,” Wang said in a sermon in September 2018.

Plainclothes officials were stationed near the court, according to one witness who was detained and later released. Only government-appointed lawyers were at the trial, United States watchdog group, China Aid, said in an online report. “No members of Pastor Wang’s family or members of Early Rain Covenant Church were invited to the proceedings.”

Wang had been active in resisting tough new rules on the practice of religion issued in early 2018, leading to the co-issuing of a September 2018 statement with over 100 pastors on how to resist the rules.

“This country is launching a war against the soul. Although the ranking of this war is not the most advanced, it is the most important war. In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war, but they have established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, will never capitulate nor be conquered: the soul of man … so they are destined to lose this war and are doomed to fail,” Wang said in a sermon in September 2018.

Various Protestant pastors have been reported as saying the heavy sentence will frighten some Churches but others have vowed to continue their quest for religious freedom.

Wang’s sentence will also send a shiver through China’s unofficial Catholics who represent up to 50 per cent of the country’s 10-12 million faithful. The September 2018 deal with the Vatican on bishop appointments was seen by Beijing as a way of asserting better control over Chinese Catholics, but few priests and bishops of the unofficial community have agreed to move across to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

In January 2018, renowned Chinese expatriate author, Liao Yiwu, who escaped to Germany via Vietnam in 2011 after being harassed and repeatedly refused permission to travel, wrote a plea for Wang, saying his arrest and jailing were only a matter of time and that he was following in the footsteps of fellow dissident, Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize but died in prison before his sentence could be served out.

Zheng Peihong, a lawyer engaged by Wang’s father in the days after his arrest, was interrogated by police for six hours, had all related legal documents and was stripped of his right to provide counsel.

At the same time as Beijing is increasing repression, the administration of US president, Donald Trump, has continued to step up its criticism of China’s religious programme.

“We are alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi, leader of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. We call for his immediate and unconditional release,” State Department spokesperson, Morton Ortagus, said in a January 1 statement.

“This is yet another example of Beijing’s intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups. We continue to call on Beijing to uphold its international commitments and promises made in its own constitution to promote religious freedom for all individuals, including members of ethnic and religious minorities and those who worship outside of official state-sanctioned institutions,” the statement said.

Under the Trump presidency, the US has increased its criticism of Beijing’s latest programme of religious repression, which began in earnest in 2015 and has focused on what the Chinese government describes as the “Western religions” of Christianity and Islam.

The officially atheist Communist Party recognises five religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Daoism and Buddhism. It also officially forbids its 90 million members from being members of religious congregations. And while this is not followed in practice, the organisation reiterated these rules once more in 2019.

Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in China, according to the Pew Institute, and other prominent unofficial Churches have been shuttered in recent years.

Wang had previously worked as a human rights lawyer and was an author and poet. He and Jiang were baptised in 2005 and the next year Wang and other Chinese Christians were received by then-US president, George W. Bush, in the White House. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Wang and Jiang founded the Early Rain Covenant Church in their home.

Since then, they have been repeatedly harassed by the police and interrogated over 20 times. Wang Yi later became the chief pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church and the most controversial political pastor among China’s unofficial Churches.

In targeting Wang, Beijing will be hoping, to use an old Chinese proverb, “to frighten the monkeys by killing a chicken.” But the resilience of Christian believers may prove it wrong. Unfortunately, even tougher measures are in store if it does. 

UCAN

Author: SundayExam