China stepped up its crackdown on Christians last year compared to 2006, with an overall increase in reported persecutions of believers, according to the China Aid annual report released Wednesday.
There were a total of 60 cases of known house church persecutions by the government covering 18 provinces and one municipality in 2007, up from 46 cases in 2006, according to the report. The number of people persecuted was 788, up from 665 the previous year, and the number of people arrested and detained increased 6.6 percent, from 650 to 693.
The number of people sentenced or imprisoned decreased slightly from 17 in 2006 to 16 people in 2007.
China Aid Association noted that the number of persecution incidents is likely to be much higher because of censorship in communications.
There were four main targets of persecution: house church leaders, house churches in urban areas, Christian publications, and foreign Christians and missionaries living and working in China.
China's harassing of house church leaders began in 2006 – a tactic that departs from the large-scale persecution of ordinary believers typically seen the previous year. A total of 415 house church leaders were arrested in 2007, which accounts for 59.9 percent of all people arrested last year and for 52.6 percent of all Christians suffering persecution in 2007.
In December 2007, police forces arrested 270 Protestant house church pastors in an eastern Chinese province while they were gathering for Bible study. Most of the pastors were released within a week after interrogation and paying a fine.
Besides targeting house church leaders, China focused on disrupting Christian activities occurring in urban areas. Over half of the reported persecution cases occurred in urban areas, accounting for 58.3 percent of the 60 cases. The number of people persecuted in urban areas was 599, which is 76 percent of the total number of those persecuted.
The Chinese government also targeted Christian publications, with seven cases related to the operation, printing, transportation and distribution of Christian literatures.
A notable case is that of Christian businessman and well-known house church leader Zhou Heng, who was formally arrested on Aug. 31, 2007, for receiving 3 tons of Bibles.
Zhou is the manager of a registered bookstore that sells some Christian books published legally and officially inside China. He was detained when he went to pick up three tons of Bibles at a bus station. The Bibles were reportedly donated by South Korean churches and intended for local believers free of charge. But the government only allows officially sanctioned (state) churches to print and distribute a limited number of Bibles each year.
It is reported that Zhou was beaten in prison severely by inmates and prison guards.
Court officials, after investigating Zhou's case, returned it to Public Security Bureau (PSB), ruling insufficient grounds for prosecution, according to the latest update. The PSB has neither sentenced nor released Zhou, who remains in detention.
Some speculate that China's crackdowns were quieter last year because Beijing is trying to avoid drawing international attention to its human rights violations ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China has narrowed its focus to secretly target leaders and heads of the house church movement rather than cracking down on ordinary believers.
But last summer, China did draw international attention when it expelled over 100 (84 are already confirmed by China Aid Association) foreign Christians from the country. Most of these Christians were from the West, but a few of them were from South Korea and other countries.
They were accused of evangelizing or being associated with local house churches and had their visas revoked. The massive expulsion was the largest of its kind since 1954 after the communist government took power in 1949.
China is listed as the 10th worst persecutor of Christians in the Open Doors 2008 World Watch List. Open Doors, a Christian persecution watchdog, describes China as a country with "many contradictions," saying that while registered Christians have freedom to worship, house church Christians are harshly cracked down upon. It also noted that while sometimes the government exhibits "unprecedented politeness," other times it raids and imprisons believers.
In the U.S. State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report released in September 2007, it states that China's "respect for freedom of religion remained poor, especially for religious groups and spiritual movements that are not registered with the Government." The annual report confirmed several raids on house churches.
China has an underground Christian population estimated to be as high as 100 million, although experts are quick to point out the difficulty in obtaining the real count.