DUBLIN, Ireland Religious rights groups are monitoring attempts by Chinese officials to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement, saying much work still needs to be done.
Despite an unprecedented seminar with government officials, rights groups have reported that police have raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services, said the rights groups which are seeking to secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians.
In November, two research institutesone from the governmentorganized the fall symposium that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.
A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, "Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches," along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities.
Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council's Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.
In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China's religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.
At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said.
"Only God can control the spirituality of faith," the house church official said. "No worldly authorities have the right to control a man's spirit."
The government, Liu added, has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order.
"If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set," he said.
Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.
Despite the gains, rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.
Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, the aid association reported. Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.
The association also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.
Officers also reportedly arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.
But the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, which is responsible for most of the country's Bible distribution, said victims of the raids were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.
"When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country," Chow insisted. "The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street."
Amity opened a new multi-million dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.
"China is experiencing a great freedom of worship," said Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales, Australia. "With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly. Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy that owning their own Bible bringsbut unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially."
Still, there are shortages. The China Aid Association issued a statement Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.