A member of Early Rain Covenant Church in China was released from detention Thursday, seven months after his arrest, Christian persecution advocacy groups are reporting.
Gou Zhongcan, an affiliate of the Sichuan-based underground megachurch that authorities shut down last year, has returned home after being detained in a dark basement since March when he was arrested while visiting a friend in Zhejiang.
According to the United States-based advocacy group International Christian Concern, Gou's vision deteriorated during his detention.
According to the Texas-based advocacy group China Aid, Gou was detained in the basement of a government office for refusing to give up the passwords to his computer and cell phone. He had previously spent 10 years in prison.
Gou’s lawyer had been unable to locate him despite multiple attempts. But eventually, Gou’s father was permitted to meet with him.
The father reported at the time that his son's health was deteriorating but he still sang worship songs while he was being held captive.
Another Early Rain member who spoke with ICC said Gou is in good health despite the problems he's experiencing with his vision.
“What great news to know that Gou is finally free,” ICC’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, Gina Goh, said in a statement. “But the Chinese government has not relented on the persecution of Christians.”
While some underground movements in China are shrouded in secrecy, Early Rain shared its faith publicly. According to the BBC, the church hosted public worship gatherings which drew the ire of the China’s communist government. Early Rain also ran a small school.
Exclusive Op-eds from the Presidential Campaigns
China Aid reports that at least 150 Early Rain members have been taken into police custody in the past year.
On Dec. 9, 2018, authorities arrested pastor and social activist Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong. The next day, authorities detained 100 other members of the church, many of whom were later released. It was reported that authorities forced members to sign documents stating they would stop attending Early Rain.
Later that month, authorities arrested about 60 more members of the church as they tried to convene again.
According to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council working group report from Oct. 1, it's believed that 13 members of the church are still being detained. Among them, according to the report, are Wang and Jiang, even though earlier reporting suggested that Jiang had been released.
About 12 individuals are said to be in administrative detention and 11 were released on bail after a period of detention.
Along with charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” they also face criminal suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” “illegal business activity” and “illegal publishing.”
“ERCC pastor Wang Yi and elder Qin Derfu are still criminally detained on trumped-up charges and their lawyers and family have not been able to see them, even after 10 months,” ICC’s Goh stressed. “We should continue to put pressure on Beijing so that they will be set free. None of them deserved imprisonment in the first place.”
In its Oct. 1 report, the U.N. working group called on the Chinese government to immediately release Wang Yi and Jiang Rong.
“The working group urges the government to ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Mr. Wang and Ms. Jiang,” they wrote in a formal opinion. “[A]nd to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of their rights.”
For the past 20 years, China has been recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “country of concern” for its religious freedom violations.
In recent years, the government has cracked down on several churches that are not affiliated with a state-sanctioned denomination.
Manping Ouyang, the wife of Pastor Su Tianfu from the evangelical Living Stone Church in Guiyang, attended the second annual State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
She told reporters about how authorities seized her church’s assets and auctioned off its property in December 2015.
“All of our spiritual literature in our church, including Bibles, were confiscated,” she said through a translator. “Many of our brothers and sisters were put under house arrest, detained and some were even sentenced to imprisonment.”
In 2017, Ouyang’s husband was sentenced to one year in prison and two years reprieve. The church’s other pastor, Yang Hua, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
“The government even put a heavy fine to our church, which is the equivalent of over $1 million,” Ouyang said.
About a week after authorities shut down Early Rain last December, they also shut down Rongguili Church in Guangzhou.
In a raid, authorities confiscated Bibles and Christian literature. The megachurch was accused of illegal gathering, illegal publishing, and illegal fundraising.
Months prior, authorities closed down Zion Church, a megachurch in Beijing, after its leaders refused to install security cameras.
In May, authorities shut down Shouwang Church in Beijing, which was said to have been attended by over 1,000 people.
Last weekend, China Aid released a statement saying that authorities had demolished a large church in Funan, Anhui province, and detained its pastors.