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.

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.
Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Prayer: Members of an underground Protestant "house church" pray for the safety of their pastor, Zhang Mingxuan, who had just been arrested. Members of independent Christian churches are often detained and harrassed.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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