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Every Sunday at the appointed time, a moderator sets up a private online meeting, and usernames begin to appear on the screen as church members join the video feed. Then, as in any other church service, the online worshippers sing hymns, offer their prayers and listen to the preaching of God’s Word. This is an illegal church meeting in China.

In 2018, the Early Rain Covenant Church of Chengdu was ordered to close after refusing to give in to government demands.

Since the closure, the government has forced church members to sign false confessions, detained them and tortured them to the point that some have considered suicide.

Yet even though their head pastor Wang Yi is serving nine years in prison, the congregation has courageously continued to gather for worship.

While some are too afraid to be associated with the church, most of Early Rain’s 500 members – even those with policemen posted outside their apartment doors and those banished to faraway home towns – are committed to keeping the faith.

Shortly before church elder Li Yingqiang was arrested, he encouraged the church with these words: “How wonderful it would be if, because of this suffering, we might be able to give off the sweet fragrance of the Gospel.”

The Early Rain Covenant Church began as a home Bible study in 2004 and then became an independent church in 2008.

Pastor Yi, who was appointed head pastor the following year, was a lawyer, and a lecturer at Chengdu University when he became a believer in 2004. By April 2006, he had become such a prominent member of the house church movement that he and two other Chinese Christians were invited to speak with President George W Bush about supporting religious freedom in China.

From the outset, Early Rain was transparent about its worship. The church published its sermons online, printed weekly bulletins and even posted its name on the lift buttons where it met.

The church’s strategy was to hide nothing from the government and to hold fast to its Christian convictions. “The Bible teaches us that in all matters relating to the Gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men,” Pastor Yi wrote.

Early Rain was known among Chinese house churches for its emphasis on evangelism and mercy missions. These values were generally avoided by churches wanting to stay off the government’s radar.

Early Rain church leaders also spoke out against abortion and denounced the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) for cooperating with the government.

In March 2018, the TSPM and the China Christian Council, another government-sanctioned entity, launched a five-year plan promoting the “Sinicisation of Christianity”.

The plan proposed retranslating the Bible and rewriting biblical commentaries to introduce Buddhist and Confucian teachings as well as draw parallels to socialism.

At official TSPM churches, pastors must now also submit every sermon to authorities before delivering them.

Bob Fu, of the China Aid Association, believes this plan initiated “the worst persecution in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution”. Throughout the country, officials have removed crosses from church buildings, even those on government-sanctioned churches.

Authorities have also begun to offer house churches a form of ‘legal’ registration, which many see as a thinly veiled attempt to gather the names of church members and pressure them into joining the TSPM.

Government officials have closed many primary schools operated by churches and issued notices forbidding minors from receiving religious education.

Foreigners with even the hint of connection to a religious entity have been deported, and house churches that had been meeting quite openly in large groups have now been banned. Churches are required to sing the communist national anthem at the beginning of every worship service and hang pictures of President Xi Jinping on the walls.

Facial recognition cameras, pointed at the congregation, are now required inside church auditoriums and many churches have been closed for refusing to conform.

One of the major initiatives of the Regulations on Religious Affairs was to cut Chinese churches off from foreign support and influence. As a result, well-known churches like Early Rain and Damazhan were closely monitored, making it difficult for the global body of Christ to provide outside support.

In Guangzhou and other cities, officials offered financial rewards for information on “illegal religious activity” or foreigners involved in religious activity. One church after another was closed, and authorities detained many pastors, lawyers and lay leaders, some of whom received fines and lengthy prison sentences.

Pressure had been increasing steadily on Early Rain. When the church held a prayer service in May 2018 for those affected by the Sichuan earthquake, police raided the meeting and confiscated more than 10,000 Bibles, books and CDs.

A month later, when authorities raided church member An Yankui’s home and detained him for questioning, he encouraged other church members in an online forum: “We will not stop our gathering in the Lord, but we are prepared to bear all possible persecutions and costs for our Lord Jesus Christ – to go to jail or sentenced or beaten or killed. We are willing to entrust ourselves to God.”

After enduring months of government persecution, Early Rain’s leaders prayerfully decided it was time to speak up. In September 2018 they published A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith, which emphasised the supremacy of God and the role of the church. It concluded with this bold statement:

“For the sake of the Gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of our freedom and our lives.” Pastor Wang Yi’s name was first on the list of signatories, followed by the names of many other pastors and leaders of unregistered churches throughout the country. To date, 439 Chinese pastors have signed the declaration, publicly opposing the government’s campaign against religious freedom.

On 9 December 2018, police in Chengdu carried out a massive raid on Early Rain, shutting down the church-operated school, the seminary and the church itself. In the space of three days, authorities arrested more than 100 church members.

Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jing Rong, were both detained, accused of “inciting subversion of state power”. Other church leaders, including Li Yingqiang, were accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Days after the raid, Early Rain published Pastor Wang Yi’s Declaration of Faithful Disobedience, which he had written in October with instructions that it be published if he were detained for more than 48 hours. “I firmly believe that Christ has called me to carry out this faithful disobedience through a life of service, under this regime that opposes the Gospel and persecutes the church,” he wrote. “The goal of disobedience is not to change the world, but to testify about another world.”

In the months that followed, Early Rain’s main site as well as four satellite sites were closed, and the church was declared illegal. Whenever believers tried to gather, the police followed and shut down their meetings, sometimes beating those in attendance. One woman was beaten so severely that she lost her unborn child.

Yet church members continued to view these attacks and interrogations as opportunities to share the Gospel. They had been taught how to react under questioning.

“By the grace and help of the Lord, try to turn the interrogation process into a process of evangelism,” read a post on the church’s online platform.

Some church members reported seeing jailers come to faith in Christ or policemen soften toward the Gospel after witnessing the testimony of believers’ lives.

Pastor Yi’s wife, Jing Rong, was released six months after her arrest, but she remains under constant surveillance and is denied the opportunity to communicate with anyone. His parents too are continually under police watch.

Elder Li Yingqiang was released on bail in August 2019 and returned to Hubei province with his family. He must report to the police station regularly while his case is pending. All of the Early Rain church members arrested since 2018 have since been released, with the exception of elder Qin Defu (sentenced to four years in prison) and Pastor Yi. His sentence is the longest given to a house church pastor in more than 10 years.

Earlier this year, a photo from an anonymous church member was released of Pastor Yi in prison. He was meant to be transferred to a detention centre in January, but it was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the photo Pastor Yi appears thinner but reportedly full of “calm and perseverance”. The photo was released to encourage his family and church members that he was keeping well.

While pastors like Yi remain faithful to the call, the government shows no sign of backing down from its five-year plan. There have been more arrests, raids, church closures and even demolitions of church buildings every month.

If, however, China is entering a second period of extreme persecution such as followed the Cultural Revolution, this time the church is prepared.

“Christians in China are better prepared for persecution today because more believers have their own copy of God’s Word,” said VOM’s regional director for the Asia Pacific region, “and because they have seen the fruit of their predecessors’ faithfulness in enduring persecution.”

While nearly all Chinese churches have abandoned the large-group format, they haven’t abandoned meeting for worship. Many large urban churches now meet in smaller groups or by using technology to create online meeting spaces, and fewer churches were raided or shut down in 2019 as a result.

Although some have left the faith or chosen to stay home, many more are firmly committed to following Christ despite persecution and this new era of persecution may be a period of refinement for the maturing Chinese church.

Chinese Christians need our continued, faithful prayers and support more than ever. They must remain faithful to Christ alone as their government tries to dilute the Gospel with Chinese culture. Many believers, like those at Early Rain Covenant Church of Chengdu, have prepared to confront persecution through sound teaching and the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the words of Li Yingqiang, “May the whole world know that we are joyfully willing to receive this persecution for the sake of our faith.”

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