A house church pastor in China’s Hunan province has been arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” after he refused to join the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Three-Self Patriotic Association.
Radio Free Asia reports that pastor Zhao Huaiguo, the founder of Bethel Church, was arrested on April 2 in China’s Hunan province, after being criminally detained since March 14 for inciting subversion of state power. His whereabouts are unknown.
His wife, Zhang Xinghong, told the outlet that after her husband was criminally detained, the state security personnel told her that the reason for his arrest was due to his re-posting of messages about the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities accused him of using VPN software to avoid the Great Firewall and sharing political content, including what happened in Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease.
Zhang told RFA that before her husband was arrested, he was asked multiple times to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the association that oversees Protestant Christianity in China, which he refused to do.
A day after his arrest, six police officers went to Bethel Church where they confiscated 480 books, including study tools, handouts, and copies of biblical materials, claiming the materials were illegal and without publication permission.
Zhang told China Aid, “Recently, the state security personnel have visited me multiple times, asking me to authorize a local lawyer in Zhangjiajie to handle Zhao Huaiguo’s case. I was also asked to sign a statement, promising that I would not reveal the progress about his case to any reporter, nor publish his criminal detention notice and arrest warrant.”
Feeling frustrated, she added, “Last Friday, […] I was about to hire a good lawyer, but the state security told me that Zhao has already authorized a lawyer [to represent him]. I was very unhappy. I told them, ‘If you knew that his family was going to hire a lawyer, why did you ask him to hire one?’ I told them I would not accept the lawyer hired by him, including local lawyer from Zhangjiajie.”
Zhao Huaiguo founded Bethel Church in Cili, near the city of Zhangjiajie (Hunan) in 2007. Last year, the church was banned, with the government saying Zhao illegally preached and distributed Christian pamphlets.
From March to December of last year, the public security police repeatedly harassed the church, taking its preachers in for questioning and forcing them to sign an agreement that they would not preach or hold any more religious activities.
“[Zhao] was accused of proselytizing and distributing Gospel tracts, which were considered illegal acts. After the Lunar New Year last year, the religious bureau forced the church to disperse, to which it refused. The official ban arrived last April,” a local Christian previously told China Aid.
International Christian Concern notes that the Chinese government often pressures prisoners of conscience to use state-appointed or recommended lawyers as an incentive for reduction of sentences. However, many have refused, fearing that these lawyers serve only the state’s interest.
Open Doors USA’s World Watch List ranks China as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians. The organization notes that all churches are perceived as a threat if they become too large, too political or invite foreign guests.
In the past year, Chinese authorities have shut down a number of well-known churches, including Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, Xunsiding Church in Xiamen, and the 5,000-member Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China.
China has also been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for “continuing to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
In its annual report released Tuesday, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom called the country “the world’s foremost violator of human rights and religious freedom.” The report cited the Chinese government’s harassment of human rights advocates outside its border as well as the CCP’s continued persecution of Christians, Muslim-majority Uighurs, and other ethnic minorities.
“[China] cannot be compared to any other country in the world not only because of its inexcusable actions, but because of the way it aids and abets similar actions by other countries all around the world,” said commissioner Johnnie Moore.
“Meanwhile, the international order, in pursuit of self-interest, continues to let China play by its own rules, and especially at the United Nations. This is absolutely inexcusable, and those nations around the world who ignore China’s malevolence may eventually find themselves subservient to it. It is past time for our world bodies, and our liberal democracies, to demand more from China.”
In a statement, Arielle Del Turco, Family Research Council’s assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty, said: "USCIRF's report confirms what we already know—that religious freedom in China is rapidly deteriorating. China uses all manner of new technology to control and suppress religious practice. As technology develops, so do China's human rights violations.”