Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Shouwang Church 

A couple weeks ago, 160 members of Shouwang Church were arrested as they approached the outside meeting area they had chosen for their assembly after they were not allowed to occupy the meeting place they had purchased. In one sense, this is not really news, because churches in China are required to register, and this church was not registered. So it is not surprising. What really is news is that they have been allowed to accumulate some 1000 members before they had this kind of trouble.

Actually, that's not quite true. This is not their first brush with the "law." I use the term loosely, because I am not sure whether the policy requiring registration is actually law, or just Party policy. The church leaders insist they are not breaking the law. They may be right in a technical sense, because the National People's Congress is the "highest body of state authority," and I don't know that the Congress have ever passed a law that specifically restricts the size of religious meetings, especially the maximum size for religious meetings that don't need to be registered. But that's kinda irrelevant, because, as as Jiang Jinsong says in his book, The National People's Congress, in China, the party is over the State. So in China, what the party says supercedes law. So I'm not sure whether the policy came from the National People's Congress (law) or directly from the Party (edict). What is clear, though, is that the members of the Shouwang Church knew about the policy, and chose to violate it. Here is what the policy actually says:
There is no registration requirement for, to quote from Chinese Christians, "house services," which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading. [Official English version]
House churches take full advantage of this clause to set up home fellowships that are not registered. As long as the fellowship in question can be considered "family and a few friends," the police will not bother them. The problem, of course, is that if the church is successful, pretty soon you will have another family and a few more friends, and before long, the fellowship will exceed the limits of what can be considered a "house service." When this happens, the police will begin to take action to stop this development. Many churches respond to this action by splitting up and becoming two or more churches. In this way, you could argue that the policy actually promotes church growth in China. But other times, the fellowship in question will resist the pressure and just keep on growing and developing. At this point, it is up to the police to decide how they will respond. In some places in the countryside, the police take quite an active role in stopping the growth of these family churches, because they have clearly gone beyond what can be considered "relatives and friends." But in Beijing, and in some other cities, the police will often look the other way, as long as the unregistered fellowship is not too large, and especially as long as the fellowship is not being run by foreigners. I have been to several "family churches" which were actually informal, unregistered groups of Christian believers who had rented a meeting place, and were conducting church meetings on a regular basis. But since these fellowships have clearly grown beyond the limits of the policy, every city seems to have its own unofficial limit to how big a church group will be allowed to grow before the government gets involved. In Beijing, I would gernally say that a group of one hundred to two hundred people would probably not have too much trouble. In Wuhan, unofficial churches are generally allowed to get quite large, and actually have an open relationship with the police. They register in a more or less unofficial way and the police allow them to operate, as long as they comply with basic requirements for public meetings.

My first introduction to Shouwang Church was a couple years ago when I was asked to give a presentation about freedom of religion in China. A young lady came up to me after the presentation and asked me what I thought of this unofficial church that had just been shut down. I told her that they would probably disperse and then reemerge. I turned out to be partly right and partly wrong. They eventually did reemerge, but they had not really dispersed. They just kept getting bigger and bigger. If a church changes their location, they can sometimes elude the authorities, because they have moved to a different police district or something. But again, the Shouwang church as clearly grown beyond what the powers that be will tolerate from a church that is not registered. They have not accepted this yet. They even bought a meeting place. But the police have prevented them from moving into it.

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