BEIJING The first time the government had them evicted from their rented building, they worshiped outside in a blizzard. When the police started arresting them at their outdoor services, they came back faithfully each Sunday. When their leadership was placed under house arrest and some of them were pressured to quit their jobs, they endured.
They are Shouwang Church in Beijing, a congregation that has refused official registration. For years they have absorbed the abuses of a government opposed to their belief in Jesus Christ as head of the church. Shouwang now has ventured into legal efforts to secure a regular place of worship.
"The Chinese Communist Party is always afraid of any form of organization independent from the control of the central government," said Mark Shan, news analyst for ChinaAid, a group that monitors religious freedom and has chronicled Shouwang Church's struggles.
In China, only churches registered as part of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement are considered legal. But registration brings government restrictions on evangelism, Sunday School, baptizing teens and children and other activities. In addition, ChinaAid's founder and president, Bob Fu, says government-appointed leaders, many of whom are Communist Party members, are at the helm of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Shouwang Church's refusal to place itself under the yoke of government regulators has earned it and its roughly 1,000 members consistent harassment from authorities. In November 2009, according to the church, the government had the church evicted from its rented building, forcing members to worship outside twice before they received "tacit" consent to return indoors. But authorities continued to thwart efforts by the church to rent or buy a meeting place, so beginning on April 10, 2011, Shouwang decided to return to outdoor worship until they received official permission to meet indoors.
During the church's first service, police arrested more than 160 members. For 17 months since then, Shouwang has continued to worship outdoors, and police have consistently arrested and detained scores of believers.
Shan says most arrested church members are released within a few days, but some are terrorized verbally and physically by the police. During interrogations, Shouwang members have even faced representatives of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who try to sway the church members with theological arguments.
"The church never gives in," Shan said. "Every Sunday, believers try very hard to go to the worship location, and they get arrested. They get detained, put in police stations and released. Every Sunday this kind of thing is repeated."
Some members have been forced to quit their jobs or move due to government pressure, and church leadership has been held under house arrest. The senior pastor, Jin Tianming, has been confined to his home for more than 500 days.
In an effort to remedy the church's situation through legal means, Tianming has filed an "administrative review" -- which lets citizens contest government actions -- with the Beijing municipal government. The application argues that the government's actions -- from pressuring landlords to detaining church members -- indicate the government is "suppressing the religious freedom granted by the Constitution to every citizen and the right of Christian churches to practice their religious faith, all of which constitutes religious persecution."
According to the South China Morning Post, a staff member at the legal affairs office of the Beijing government said the administrative review has been rejected. The next step, Shan of ChinaAid said, would be to file an "administrative lawsuit."
"That would be more serious, because in that sense the courts would be involved in this case," he said.
In the meantime, Shouwang Church struggles on. The Post quoted a church elder who said four leaders and many worshippers have left the church, a "painful wound in its heart."
Shan asks believers to pray that God will grant Shouwang Church protection and wisdom. He also urges Christians to contact not only their governments, but also prominent businessmen and companies working in China. Their economic power has earned great respect from the Chinese government, and if they were to speak out, Shan said, it could make a difference.
In its most recent announcement posted on ChinaAid's website, Shouwang Church gave thanks for its Sept. 16 outdoor worship service, the 38th consecutive week of services this year. Police arrested more than 20 members, but the church remains undaunted, committing itself to the Lord.
"Indeed, the LORD knows us; we won't be able to persevere through such a long period of time without Him sustaining us with His might (sic) hands," the announcement said. "Therefore, we believe that our LORD is still with His church, and is going to manifest His glorious work through our weakness. We pray that pray that God will listen to our prayers in unity."