.- Wang Yi and more than 100 members of his congregation were detained in China’s Sichuan province in early December. Some were released the next day, but then put under house arrest. Wang, his wife, and nearly 10 others remain in detention, charged with inciting subversion.
Wang is pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, which has now been closed. Some members of the ecclesial community are in hiding, some have been effectively exiled from the Sichuanese capital, and others are under surveillance. In all, more than 300 members of the community have been arrested, according to the church.
The building rented by Early Rain Covenant Church has new tenants, and police turn away those looking for the church.
The community posted on its Facebook page March 20 that one of its members was last seen two days earlier at a train station “being escorted by multiple plainclothes police officers. His head was shaved and he was handcuffed. We do not know where he was being taken.” The statement added that several members “have been forcefully evicted from their homes.”
Wang has been an outspoken opponent of the Chinese government’s effort to ‘Sinicize’ religion.
Religious freedom is officially guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, but religious groups must register with the government, and are overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. The Sinizication of religion has been pushed by President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2013 and who has strengthened government oversight of religious activities.
Earlier this year Early Rain Covenant Church posted a May 2017 sermon by Wang, called “When to Resist, When to Submit”.
He gave the example of the police coming to the church and offering two options: that the pastor attend religious instruction at the Religious Affairs Bureau once a month and that the list of candidates for elders and pastors be reported, or the church’s property will be confiscated and the leaders arrested.
Wang held in his sermon that “in matters involving the body, God wants us to wholly submit, to give up these things, to bear the losses. But the Lord has not given them [i.e., governments] the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
“Over the past 2000 years of church history and Chinese church history, the church has always been faced with this struggle and this choice … what should we do? Which option should the church choose?”
“What the gospel gives us is freedom of the soul and submission of the body,” Wang stated, arguing against seemingly small compromises with the government.
“How do we demonstrate that we are a group of people who trust Jesus, who follow Jesus to the cross? How do we demonstrate that Christians are are goup of people whose souls are free? That we are no longer a people who are slaves through fear of death?” he asked. “It is through bodily submission, through bodily suffering, that we demonstrate the freedom of our souls.”
It is against the backdrop of the Sinicization of religion that the Holy See has been in negotiations with China’s government in recent years.
In September 2018 the Holy See and Beijing reached an agreement meant to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics and unify the underground Church and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the CPCA, a government-sanctioned organization.
The agreement has been roundly criticized by human rights groups and some Church leaders, including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong.
In December, two bishops of the underground Catholic Church agreed to step aside in favor of bishops of the CPCA, in the wake of the September agreement.
And the month prior, four priests from the underground Church in Hebei province who refused to join the CPCA were taken into police custody for indoctrination.