BEIJING – Beijing's Shouwang Church has become the fourth major underground church raided by authorities in China during the past seven months. The raids have led some to speculate the Chinese government may be preparing for a broader crackdown against Christians.
"China's oppression against house churches will not be loosened," ChinaAid President Bob Fu said, according to International Christian Concern (ICC), an organization that monitors persecution of believers worldwide. "A systematic, in-the-name-of-law crackdown will continue to take place," Fu said.
More than 20 police officers raided a Bible school class at one Shouwang Church location March 23, ICC reported. Attendees were taken to a nearby school, questioned and asked to sign a letter pledging not to attend the church anymore. They refused to sign.
Meanwhile, believers from another Shouwang location also were detained and brought to the school for questioning, according to ICC.
All the church members were released, but authorities changed the locks at the locations of both raids, according to media reports. Shouwang – which has about 1,000 worship attendees – and all its subsidiary organizations were closed, reported ChinaAid, a group that promotes religious freedom in China.
The church said in a statement it will change its venue and continue to meet, according to ICC.
Shouwang founding pastor Jin Tianming and two other of the church's pastors have been under house arrest since 2011, ICC reported. The church has been accused of failing to register with the government as a "social organization." As a result, according to ChinaAid, Shouwang has had its "multi-million dollar property" confiscated and been forced to meet outdoors – even during inclement weather.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom "condemns Saturday's raid of Shouwang Church by Chinese police officers, part of #China's continuing and escalating crackdown on house churches," USCIRF tweeted March 26. "Shouwang Church has regularly faced persecution for refusing to join the state-sanctioned church."
An estimated 93-115 million Protestant Christians live in China, with fewer than 30 million attending churches registered with the government, according to data reported by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Shouwang is among a group of underground Chinese churches that have become what a March 25 New York Times report called "public megachurches." These churches still are known as "underground" or "house" churches because of their illegal, unregistered status even though they conduct their ministries largely in public and have hundreds of members.
"Run by well-educated white-collar professionals in China's biggest cities, the churches own property and have nationwide alliances – something anathema to the [Chinese Communist] party, which tightly regulates nongovernmental organizations," The Times reported.
Another such church, Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, was raided in December. Its pastor and 10 other members remain jailed. A church of at least 500 members, according to The Times, Early Rain helps the families of political prisoners, founded a homeless shelter and protests China's use of abortion for family planning – all in addition to its evangelism and discipleship ministries.
Following the March 23 raid of Shouwang, Early Rain said in a statement its members "kneeled down to pray to give thanks and praises to our God, because we are delighted that the bride of Christ is closely following her husband."
Two other large Chinese underground churches were raided in recent months as well: the 1,500-member Zion Church of Beijing in September and Rongguili Church of Guangzhou in December, which had some 5,000 attendees, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
Christianity Today reported raids of larger Chinese churches suggest "the government may be 'testing' crackdown measures before more widespread implementation."
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.