The Living Stone: A Case of Religious Unfreedom in Guiyang, China
"The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it." John 1:5
Around the time of Advent in 2015 as many Christians around the world made preparations for Christmas, the Living Stone House Church in Guiyang city, the capital of Guiyang province located in the south-western region of the People’s Republic of China, had just underwent perhaps the most intense suppression that it has ever experienced since its establishment.
Four ministers established the house church Living Stone back in 2009. The Church would rent rooms in the city centre for worship purpose. Despite starting with only twenty members, the church grew steadily. By 2013 it had already gained 400 believers. By then, their usual meeting space was not big enough for the service anymore. The church had to purchase a bigger venue to meet for worship.
Although the nature of the Living Stone is an underground church (which means it is not affiliated with the Chinese state controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement, known as 三自教会in Mandarin). It is open to all people interested. They are also very open and transparent in terms of their elections and management of finances.
The Living Stone is not only a place for Christians to worship and participate in the Sunday service, but also a open family where members to support and love each other, to help growth in faith and offers spiritual and moral advice. In the middle of an impetuous city such as Guiyang, people may truly experience peace in their heart in the Living Stone.
The Chinese government, although it officially tolerates religion, demands all religious organisations be brought under the control of the Three Self Patriotic Movements. This forces all religious organisations to put love towards the party and the nation first and does not allow the religious organization to be under ‘foreign influence’ such as the Dalai Lama or the Vatican. Religious organsiations who refuse to conform to this policy are subjected to heavy persecutions and classified as ‘evil heretics’ (邪教).
The growth of the Living Stone attracted attention from the Chinese government, as they were not part of the Movement. The government has taken a few steps in attempt to both coerce leaders, pastors, and organisers of the Living Stone to affiliate with the Three-Self as well as imposing fear on parishioners and deter them from attending Living Stone’s church service. They were given the choice of either continuing their services, but submit themselves to the Three-Self Patriotic movement, or being forced to close down. From as early as 2013 they were sent warnings. For example, during Christmas services, the law enforcing authorities cut out their electricity and water supplies. Two baptisms had to be cut short because of that.
After the Living Stone purchased a larger gathering space in the town centre, the intensity of coercion from the government increased, perhaps due to the government’s increasing concern over the growth of the church. On the 8th of November 2015, during its normal Sunday worship, the government mobilized hundreds of police force including ambulances, police vehicles and special police force and surrounded the entire area as if they were facing the number one terrorist organisation. Despite the intimidation from the might of the state, the service continued.
After the intimidation, many of the pastors and organisers were brought for ‘chats’ and even house visits by the police authority in order to persuade and coercive them into joining the Three-Self movement. From the perspective of the Living Stone, the Three-Self Movenment is more like an extension of the Party control. Joining the Three-Self Movement would compromise not only the integrity of the church but also the nature of the church as Christian; hence they cannot accept the offer to join.
Failing to persuade the church leaders, the government started to extend their fear tactics to individual churchgoers. According to one of the interviewed church members, almost all of his friends who attend Living Stones church had received a phone call or a house visit from the government. Their close family members were also called by the police and asked to help persuade them to stop attending services, among them many elders who had lived through the period of political oppression during the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 political unrest. One of the elders was very frightened after being threatened by the government. The pastor Yang Hua called the police saying "You can’t bully old people anymore!"
The fear tactics are very frightening, especially to those who work at nationalized companies. Their financial security is really at risk if they kept attending church services. The government has the power to force their bosses to fire them on political grounds if they do not comply. Under those threats, indeed many people stopped attending services, however, the general number of people did not decrease following government intimidation, and the church kept growing.
Finally in December, the government’s patience ran thin. On ninth of December, the Department of Civil Affairs in Guiyang mobilized around three hundred police force and closed down three sites of the Living Stone gathering place. Two hundred believers were under house arrest. By twenty first of December, six of organisers and pastors of Living Stone were under arrest with trumped-up charges. Pastor Su’s request to meet with his lawyer was also declined.
Unfortunately the case of the Living Stone is not an isolated case in China. The intrinsic human right to freely practice one’s religious belief is suppressed across the country, not only for Christians but also for Muslims and Buddhists. One Living Stone blogger Yangdamei sends a powerful message in Our Belonging is Jail: without the protection freedom to practice religion, we fear that we would lose our bodily freedom when arrested. In fact when we are overwhelmed by fear, our soul is already imprisoned. Therefore, "If a government imprisons its citizens because they are Christians, imprisons people who cares about justice; perhaps the true belonging of Christians and people who have a sense of justice is jail."