The increase in coronavirus cases in China’s prison system has sparked concern among the loved ones of church leaders and other Christians imprisoned for their faith.
On Friday, China announced that more than 500 prisoners in five prisons in three provinces had contracted the virus, also known as COVID-19, which has so far sickened almost 80,000 people and killed more than 2,000 people, the South China Morning Post reports.
Nearly half of the cases were in Rencheng jail in Jining, located in China's eastern province of Shandong. Officials said a prison guard had shown COVID-19 symptoms in early February and that 200 prisoners and seven officers subsequently tested positive for the virus.
According to persecution watchdog International Christian Concern, Christian human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been incarcerated in the same province, and his wife Li Wenzu has not been able to learn about his updates, as her regular visit time on Feb. 13 “was canceled due to the ongoing spread of coronavirus.”
Concerned about the health of her husband, she called Linyi Prison and asked to speak to Wang on the phone, only to be quickly shut down by the staff.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, ICC urges Christians to “pray for protection for Christians who are still incarcerated in the Chinese cells.” The organization specifically named pastor John Cao, elder Hu Shigen, pastor Zhang Shaojie, pastor Bao Guohua, and “others whose lives could be greatly endangered if the epidemic reaches their prisons.”
More than half of the COVID-19 prison cases were in the central Chinese province of Hubei, the epicenter of the epidemic, with 230 cases at Wuhan Women’s Prison and 41 cases at Shayang Hanjin Prison. Another 34 cases were identified at Shilifen Prison in Zhejiang province, also in the country’s east.
Additionally, authorities found 10 suspected cases among prisoners in the three provinces, including some at a juvenile detention center.
Hundreds, if not thousands of Christians are thought to be detained in prisons across China. Christians are among several persecuted religious minorities including Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong in the Communist-led country.
In 2018, more than one million Christians were threatened or persecuted and 5,000 arrested, according to statistics from the Wall Street Journal. As a result, persecution watchdog Open Doors USA ranks China 23rd on its World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Amid a surge in reported infections in China’s prison system, state news agency Xinhua reported that Lei Dongsheng, deputy secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, China’s top law enforcement agency, would lead a “high-level team to investigate the outbreak” at Rencheng, the Post reports.
He pledged “all out efforts” to quarantine the suspected cases and ensure hospital treatment for prisoners confirmed with the virus.
Additionally, prisons across the country have been ordered to step up monitoring of all prison guards and officers to “prevent the spread of the virus into prison premises,” he said.
As mass quarantine continues in Wuhan and surrounding provinces in China, church leaders and notable Christian figures have issued an urgent call to prayer.
“[I’m asking for] prayer for all those affected by the coronavirus,” Asian-American NBA star Jeremy Lin wrote in an email to supporters. “Definitely for all the people infected worldwide, their families, the city of Wuhan and the country of China.”
“I would also like to ask for prayer for peace and compassion, as there are many hurtful comments and misconceptions that are exacerbated by the virus,” he added. “Many people, businesses and countries are being heavily affected by the virus, so just want to pray for those who are sick and those who suddenly found themselves in a very bad situation financially from an economic hit from the ripple effect of the virus.
“I pray that Christians would use this opportunity to show what Christlike love, grace and faithfulness looks like - that the church would emerge as a light amidst a dark situation.”