Christians and human rights advocates are alarmed over an aggressive crackdown on house churches in China, where the faithful are forced to call their gatherings "patriotic" assemblies or sent to prison where they can face torture, according to a new report.
Cases of the government persecuting Christians rose 42 percent last year, amid a three-phase plan by Beijing to eradicate the home-based churches, according to China Aid, a Texas-based human rights group. Experts say the Communist Party in China has long felt threatened by any movement that galvanizes a large sector of the population, fearing it could wield political clout. But the nation has become more systematically hostile to worshippers, according to Bob Fu, China Aid founder and president.
“There have been new tactics of persecution as well, especially with the government using secret directives and memos with long-term, step-by-step strategies to eradicate house churches,” Fu told FoxNews.com. “This is very serious stuff.”
Last year, the government mounted a new three-phase approach designed to wipe out unregistered house churches by forcing them to join the official "Three-Self Patriotic Movement" and stop defining themselves as churches. The phase included having China's State Administration for Religious Affairs secretly investigate house churches and create files on them, the report found. The current wave of crackdowns, which began midway through 2012, is part of the second phase, according to Fu.
Fu said the government is using a wide array of subtle and ham-handed tactics to persecute Christians, targeting house church leaders and churches in urban areas.
“Instead of using law enforcement officials directly to attack churches, last year we found they used a softer approach,” he said. “They used utility companies, service committees and neighborhood committees to terminate contracts with rental facilities and cut off electricity and water [to the churches].”
Those semi-official agencies, including industrial and commercial affairs departments, used various excuses to “harass, interfere and ban” church services.
“In most cases, they did not take anyone into custody, or detain or sentence, and even if a person was in custody, he was quickly released,” the report found. “The unrelenting persecution of Shouwang Church in the past nearly two years has been conducted in this manner. For example, landlords were pressured to terminate lease agreements with church members, church members who had purchased real estate were unable to take possession of them, church leaders were placed under house arrest and church members were evicted — all of which was done to make it impossible for the house church to operate normally so that it would eventually disband.”
At least 132 cases of persecution affecting 4,919 Christians, including 442 church leaders, were reported last year, up from 93 cases and 4,322 Christians in 2011, respectively. The number of people detained (1,441) and sentenced (9) also increased from the year earlier, the report found.
A total of 62 cases — the highest countrywide — were reported in Beijing, according to the report, affecting 934 Christians, followed by 11 cases in Xinjiang in northwest China that affected 382 Christians. Fu said the systematic targeting of the estimated 80 million Christians living in China has become commonplace.
“It has almost become routine and that’s the danger,” Fu said. “And when the Chinese government purposefully uses this kind of soft approach, the foreign media in Beijing won’t be able to report it and the government is essentially taking advantage of the passive obedience by the church folks. If it happened to other social groups, there would be large demonstrations.”
Fu said his most pressing goal is to educate the millions of people in the United States and China who are unaware of the rampant persecution.
“Many people, especially in China, don’t even know there are really hundreds and thousands of their fellow Christian brothers being persecuted,” he said. “If a country like China shows it does not respect its own citizens and their most basic freedoms, we should be on alert and take more action from our side in the United States to advance that.”
Fu, a 45-year-old scholar and activist born in China, ran a house church himself in Beijing until he and his wife, Heidi, were arrested for doing so in 1996. He fled to the United States a year later and made national headlines last year while championing the plight of Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and dissident who fled house arrest to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Washington for talks with Chinese officials.
Fu described himself as Chen’s “ambassador” at the time and was instrumental in China’s ultimate decision to grant Chen, his wife and the couple’s two children, U.S. visas in May. Chen, 41, remains in New York and speaks with Fu on a regular basis, he said.