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.
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A growing number of Chinese are showing interest in religion, as official tolerance spreads. Some 300 million – including 40 million Christians – believe in one religion or another according to a study last year by researchers at Huadong University in Shanghai.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was so happy," remembers Zhang's wife, Xie Fenglan. "At last he didn't stop me going to church."
Hardly had he converted than he was trying to convert others, and paying the price for that. Three months after his epiphany, he was arrested for preaching on the sidewalk, and held in jail for six months.
That was the first of 28 arrests so far. He was most recently detained during this correspondent's visit to Nanyang, when the police pulled him in to tell him that they had abolished the "House Church Alliance" he formed three years ago to network among China's thousands of unofficial Protestant churches. He refused to sign a statement accepting this decision.
Mrs. Xie says she has borne her husband's fate patiently. "I'm not worried," she says with a smile. "God gives me confidence that he is a real Christian and doing what he should do."
She also consoles herself by thinking how much better life is today for Chinese Christians – however much her husband and others suffer – than it was during the Cultural Revolution, before "reform and opening."
In those days, when churches were burned down or converted into factories, warehouses, and schools, "we had to bury our Bibles and dig them up when we needed them," Xie remembers.
"Christians used to be sentenced to 10 or 20 years in prison" until 1978, adds Zhang. "I've been arrested more than 20 times, but I have never been charged with anything and they have always let me go."
He puts that down to growing international pressure and to Chinese Christians' increasing willingness to test the government's commitment to the rule of law, and their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
Zhang's "House Church Alliance" has filed more than 30 lawsuits against local authorities for persecuting unofficial churches. It won 10 of them, Zhang says, winning restitution of confiscated property and the right to hold religious services. Even where the alliance lost its case, he says, the police stopped arresting believers.
Still, Zhang knows that he is still courting arrest as he preaches in public, hands out Christian tracts, or slips religious fliers under people's front doors and into their bicycle baskets.
"Reform and opening has improved peoples' lives hugely," he says, "but it has brought more and more corrupt local officials who wield power. The central government has begun to correct its behavior, but local policemen arrest Christians for money.
"They are thugs, but I am not afraid," he adds, fingering his second-hand Bible in a maroon zippered binding. "I will fight them to the end, and I know I will win."