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Pastor's private worship puts him under public scrutiny

Sidestepping 'patriotic' churches, Zhang Mingxuan actively promotes his faith – and pays the price in arrests and jailings.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2008

Private Practice: Xie Fenglan, (r.) was delighted when her husband, Zhang Mingxuan, became a Christian. But he has refused to join a state-sanctioned church and has been arrested 28 times so far for street preaching and handing out religious tracts.


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China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world. This series explores what "reform and opening" has meant to the everyday lives of six individuals.

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Nanyang, China – For a man who started life as an anonymous itinerant barber, Zhang Mingxuan has certainly got himself into a lot of trouble.

His repeated run-ins with the Chinese police, however, have had nothing to do with his haircuts. His problem is that he is a Christian who prefers to worship privately, rather than in the state-sanctioned "patriotic church."

That puts him beyond the boundary of religious freedom in China, where 30 years of "reform and opening" have broadened religious tolerance, but only up to a point.

It also means that after being evicted from his apartment in Beijing, Mr. Zhang – a jolly square-faced man who makes a point of wearing a tie with a pattern of crosses – is now homeless and having to camp with his wife and his sister-in-law in three dingy, sparsely furnished rooms loaned by a fellow believer in this nondescript city in central China.

His two adult sons, one of whom was beaten within an inch of blindness by policemen during the eviction last August, have also suffered for their faith.

"Since the government opened up religious policy, patriotic church members have the right to practice," he says. "But the situation is different for house churches. It is hard for the government to control them ... and they think house churches could be an antigovernment political power."

As a young man, Zhang was not much interested in religion. "I was born in New China and grew up under the red flag," he recalls. "I had a Communist atheist education." Indeed after he got married, he forbade his wife, born into a Christian family, to go to the clandestine church in their hometown.

But in 1986, when a business deal went sour, ending in a court case that left Zhang carrying the can and $6,000 of other people's debts, he says he found personal meaning in the words of Psalm 38 when he heard his brother-in-law reciting the poem one day.

"They also that seek after my life lay snares for me; and they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things, and imagine deceits all the day long," the Psalmist complains. "My heart panteth, my strength faileth me."

"I felt that every sentence spoke of my experience," Zhang says today. "I could not help bursting into tears. I knelt down, and in five minutes I was a believer."