House church leader arrested by Chinese authorities on 'spurious' fraud charges

A man stands in a room in a house church in Puyang, in China's central Henan province on August 13, 2018.
A man stands in a room in a house church in Puyang, in China's central Henan province on August 13, 2018. | GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Amid an ongoing crackdown on Christians and their churches, communist authorities in China have arrested an elder of a house church in southwestern Guizhou province in a trumped-up fraud case, according to reports.

Zhang Chunlei, an elder of Love (Ren’ai) Reformed Church in Guiyang, was arrested “on suspicion of fraud” on May 1, the day China’s new administrative measures on religious clergy went into effect, the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported.

In its newsletter, the house church decried the arrest as a “serious trampling on the Christian faith.”

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“We know that he has been treated so unfairly because of his faith. The so-called charges against him for scamming brothers and sisters are simply unfounded; the ‘suspected fraud’ is outright absurd!” the church insisted.

Zhang was first placed under administrative detention for ‘illegally operating as an association’ on March 16, hours after police raided a Christian retreat at a privately rented property in Guiyang attended by some members of his church.

That day, at least five church members were administratively detained while a dozen family homes were searched. Computers, phones and documents were confiscated from the homes while several church members have been summoned and questioned by police, according to CSW.

Zhang was arrested after he went to the police station to negotiate the release of his church members, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported in April.

“While three other Christians from his church were released after three days of administrative detention, Zhang didn't walk free on March 28 when he finished his detention. Instead, he was charged for “fraud” on the same day,” ICC reported. 

CSW’s founder and President Mervyn Thomas said in a statement that Zhang spent over six weeks in detention on charges that are "corempletely unfounded." Thomas called Zhang's fraud charges "equally spurious."

“We call for his immediate and unconditional release, and for all charges against him to be dropped," Thomas said.

Last month, Chinese rights lawyer Sui Muqing told The Epoch Times that Zhang’s wife, Yang Aiqing, was taken away by police on April 21 after being subpoenaed, along with Zhang’s son and younger brother. Zhang’s son and brother were released the same day, while Yang was “detained in handcuffs and shackles” for 24 hours before her release.

Love Reformed Church is an unregistered Protestant church that was forcibly shut down by the authorities in September 2018, months after revised administrative regulations on religion came into force.

Last week, police arrested a preacher from the heavily-persecuted house church in southwestern Sichuan province, Early Rain Covenant Church, for “allegedly disturbing public order” by officiating a member’s funeral.

Preacher Wu Wuqing was arrested by officers from Damian Police Station in Chengdu city’s Longquanyi District on Friday afternoon, hours after the funeral service, ICC reported.

In April, authorities harassed house church leaders across China, including elder Zhang from Guiyang Ren’ai Reformed Church, preacher Zhang Peihong at Shanghai Lancun Zhongyue Church, and preachers Qie Jiafu and Huang Chunzi at Beijing’s Zion Church. 

Authorities in China are also continuing their crackdown on Christianity by removing Bible apps and Christian WeChat public accounts as new highly restrictive administrative measures on religious staff went into effect last week.

Father Francis Liu from the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness said in a tweet that some Christian WeChat accounts, including “Gospel League” and “Life Quarterly,” were no longer available online, ICC reported at the time.

According to recently-released reports, religious persecution in China intensified in 2020, with thousands of Christians affected by church closures and other human rights abuses.

CCP officials are enforcing strict controls on religion under the direction of President Xi Jinping, according to a report released in March by China Aid.

Open Doors USA’s World Watch List ranks China as the 17th-worst country 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.

The U.S. State Department has labeled China as a “country of particular concern” for “continuing to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

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