A member of Early Rain Covenant Church in China has been released after serving eight months in prison, but the location of the church's pastor remains unknown.
A Facebook group that provides updates about the church reports that Li Yingqiang, who was among over 160 Early Rain members arrested during communist government raids on the unrecognized house church last year, was let out on bail Sunday.
“Yesterday, elder Li Yingqiang was released from jail after eight months in criminal detention,” the post reads. “He was sent back to his hometown, where he was reunited with his wife and children.”
Li was arrested on Dec. 11, 2018, just days after the arrest of Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong.
The government tried to shut down the church as part of a crackdown on worship not sanctioned by the state as stricter regulations on religious affairs were passed in early 2018.
According to BBC, Early Rain members worship openly and are very public with their faith, something that has drawn the ire of a Chinese government that has consistently cracked down on religious freedom for many faiths. Additionally, Pastor Wang has been very critical of the control exerted by the state over religion in public life.
Before his arrest last December, Li told the South China Morning Post that the church’s worship gatherings will continue to go on no matter how many people are arrested.
“Even if we are down to our last five, worship and gatherings will still go on because our faith is real," Li was quoted as saying last December. “Persecution is a price worth paying for the Lord. We would rather live through it than to hide our faith and we hope more Chinese churches will speak up and stand with us.”
Li also told the press that the crackdown the church faced in December was unprecedented and a sign that the communist authorities wanted to close down Early Rain “for good.”
“The scale was unprecedented,” Li said at the time.
Although Li was released, other church members are still detained, including Pastor Wang, who was detained on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
Wang was arrested along with his wife, Jiang, on Dec. 9, 2018. In June, Jiang was released on bail after six months of detention.
Even after eight months in detention, the Early Rain community is still not sure where Wang is being detained, reports Asia News.
On Aug. 10, an emergency statement concerning Wang was released on the Pray for Early Rain Covenant Church Facebook page explaining that authorities in Chengdu are appointing attorneys to defend Wang instead of allowing him to use his own attorneys.
“Pastor Wang Yi is a faithful servant of God and a highly respected pastor who has received much attention. His preaching has always adhered to the principles of ‘Christ as the only Head’ and ‘the separation of church and state,’” the Facebook statement reads.
“According to the position which he openly published before his arrest, Pastor Wang Yi does not accept, does not recognize, and even condemns all actions performed [in his defense] by state-appointed attorneys, and he refuses to accept attorneys appointed by anyone but himself or his immediate family members.”
“Even if his self-appointed attorneys are not able to represent him in this case, we would rather Pastor Wang Yi present his defense himself,” the statement continues. “We do not approve of any actions taken in his defense by state-appointed attorneys.”
Wang was among a number of Chinese leaders who met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in 2006.
For the past two decades, China has continually been designated by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious liberty violations.
In addition to China’s crackdown on underground Christian churches, the Chinese government also persecutes members of other religious traditions not officially recognized by the state.
In early 2018, the communist regime passed new regulations on religious affairs in China that banned “unauthorized” religious teachings. The new regulations have come under scrutiny from human rights activists worldwide, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“[T]he Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to ‘sinicize’ religious belief, a campaign that attempts not only to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion, but also the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities, particularly Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims,” the 2019 annual USCIRF report states.
Open Doors USA ranks China as the 27th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on its 2019 World Watch List. According to Open Doors, which monitors persecution in over 60 nations worldwide, the management of religious affairs in China now lies with the Communist Party of China, not just the government.
“Since the Communist Party took over, the implementation of the regulations on religion, the treatment of religious groups, especially Christians, became much harsher across the country,” an Open Doors factsheet explains.
“Crackdowns against Christians happen countrywide and in both state-approved and non-registered churches. The youth are increasingly being removed from church life; worship is monitored via CCTV and spies; and teachers and medical workers are told they are not allowed to have any religious affiliation.”