China's Public Security Bureau has launched a new crackdown on unregistered church leaders, arresting 50 or more people following the release of a new video and book, documenting huge growth among Christians outside the officially permitted church.

In mid-February, the China Aid Association confirmed that in January police arrested three prominent Protestant leaders from Henan province, including Qiao Chunling, 41, in Luoyang; Deborah Xu Yongling, 58, in Nanyang; and Zeng Guangbo, 35, in Deng County. Guangbo escaped two days after he was arrested, and remains in hiding.

The crackdown may last for 30 days and began during China's annual National Religious Working Conference. This meeting brings together top leaders of the state Religious Affairs Bureau and the policy-making United Front Work Department. Both are charged with oversight of religion in China.

During that meeting, communist leaders screened a new, four-hour digital video, The Cross: Jesus in China.China Soul for Christ Foundation of Petaluma, California, produced the series and Yuan Zhiming, a pro-democracy leader and a Christian, wrote and directed it.

Communist leaders were also briefed on Jesus in Beijing, a new book by journalist David Aikman, formerly a Time magazine correspondent in Beijing. Both the video and book document the stunning growth and vibrancy of Christianity in China. The video has been classified as "political matter," and Public Security Bureau officers are confiscating CDV copies of the widely distributed series and other Christian literature.

A source based in Hong Kong told CT that the crackdown will focus on "the people mentioned in the video and the book" and may be as brutal as the recent repression of Falun Gong. China's actions against Falun Gong, a traditionalist sect that emphasizes meditation, resulted in many arrests, imprisonments, beatings, and deaths. A New York-based watchdog group reported that 64 Falun Gong practitioners have died after being tortured inside China since November 2003.

"They will especially hunt those in Beijing," the source said. "It took them by surprise that there were so many Christians in China. Every week pastors are arrested and thrown in jail. The communists see Christians as a threat because there are [more] Christians than Party members."

According to experts, estimates of the total number of Christians varies widely from 30 million to 100 million. The government-registered Christian church (Three Self Patriotic Movement) includes about 28 million followers. There may be as many as 80 million Christians in unregistered congregations. According to Operation World, independent Christian congregations, mostly evangelical and charismatic, are growing at a rate of 9 percent annually. That's a huge growth rate since China's overall population (1.3 billion) is growing at about 0.6 percent annually. China's constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief but requires all religious organizations to register with the government. The government brands those groups that do not register as "illegal" or "cults."

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Leaders face hardships
According to another source who asked not to be named, Deborah Xu was arrested on Saturday, January 24, in Nanyang, Henan Province. Around 11p.m. Xu was sleeping on the second floor of her niece's home. Two police officers entered the dwelling and locked the niece's mother-in-law in another room. The officers located Xu, handcuffed her, and took her into custody. Police also confiscated photos and documents.

Xu, a leading figure in China's house churches, is the sister of Peter Xu Yongze, founder of the "born-again" movement of house churches in China with millions of followers. In recent years, police have arrested Deborah Xu numerous times. But on this occasion, family members and supporters have been unable to gain any information about where she is being held, according to CT's source. Nanyang police have not disclosed what charges she faces.

Peter Xu left China in 2000 to seek asylum in the West. He is currently based in the Los Angeles area and is a leader in the new Back to Jerusalem movement. This organization aims to use 100,000 Chinese evangelists and missionaries to spread the gospel westward from China back to the city of Jerusalem.

In early February, Christianity Today interviewed Peter Xu and another prominent house church leader, Liu Zhenying (better known as Brother Yun). Both were in Washington during the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Yun currently is based in Germany.

Xu said his family has been Christian for four generations. "I'm extremely thankful that the Lord made my sister as my spiritual partner. She was called by the Lord when she was 17 years old and dedicated her whole life to the Lord." His sister made that commitment along with a decision to remain unmarried.

"She serves as a beautiful example in the front lines. Brothers and sisters [designate] her as a mother of the church." Her role includes training house church leaders throughout China, especially other women evangelists.

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Police in China have arrested both Peter Xu and Brother Yun many times. At age 17 in 1975, Yun was arrested for the first time. Police publicly beat him alongside his mother, also an active Christian. Yun told CT, "The fire of the Holy Spirit in my heart has never ceased in spite of this beating with my mom. Immediately after I was released from the detention center, I started preaching again."

Xu and Yun were in the same prison in 1997. Xu said one day he discovered his cell door unlocked, which he attributes to a miracle. He snuck into the corridor and over to Yun's cell, which could be unlocked from the outside, and he walked inside.

"Our eyes just met each other," Xu recalled. "And I said, 'God wants you to go.' So I ordered him to go and then I closed the door and he left. I started praying, Lord, protect him and let him go." Although he was severely injured from previous beatings and torture, Yun was able to escape.

Within minutes, prison guards had discovered the escape and began searching. But a winter storm started, allowing Yun to flee as guards were searching for their rain gear. "I was completely relieved," Xu said. "I know God used the rain and the snow as Yun's shelter. God has performed a big miracle."

As Yun fled the prison, he thought he was in a dream. He walked up to several iron doors and they opened before him. After he fled, Yun sought asylum in the West. He has told his life story in The Heavenly Man, published in 2002.

Controlling Religion in China
Yun told CT that Western Christians should understand better how China's government seeks to suppress Christianity in China. He said China has used its laws and administrative rules to stringently control religious expression, organizations, publishing, and training.

He said, "I won't deny there are true born-again Christians inside the [state-regulated] church. But the head of the house church is Jesus Christ alone."

Yun said China uses propaganda to "blur the line between the orthodox belief and those who only obey the Communist Party's command." In addition, Yun said China uses "international propaganda" to mislead Westerners and promote China's policy stance toward religion. He said China also invites top Western Christian leaders to travel inside China to see for themselves how Christians are allowed to run churches openly, but that doesn't provide a full picture.

House-church sources told CT that the South China Church and its leader, Pastor Gong Shengliang, is a powerful example of what happens when church growth happens quickly, resulting in crippling state scrutiny.

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In 2001, China convicted Gong and other South China Church leaders for operating a cult. They were sentenced to death. After an international outcry, Gong was tried again, but on charges of raping women members of his church. According to reliable reports, authorities took women in custody and tortured them until they alleged Gong had raped them. "One sister was beaten to death," Xu told CT. China has banned Gong's church and he is in prison.

Xu said China's leaders hope to fracture house church groups any way they can. "They tried to isolate one house-church group, now to single them out. By doing that, they can divide house church unity. This purpose is very obvious, very evil. We really prayed the eyesight, the insight, the discernment of the eagle to really clearly see this trap of Satan."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's postings today also include an interview with Aikman and a review of his book, Christianity in China.

The arrests were also reported by PA News in the United Kingdom and Asia News in Italy.

China Soul for Christ Foundation has the entire script of The Cross: Jesus in China available on its site.

The World Christian Database, run by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has more information on Christianity in China.

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of China includes:

House-Church Christian Dies in Custody | Family saw prisoner injured and bound with heavy chains (Jan, 15, 2004)
Crushing House Churches | Chinese intelligence and security forces attack anew. What you can do to help persecuted Christians in China (Jan. 13, 2004)
About-Face on Charities | Communist leaders invite even Christians to help the poor. (Oct. 21, 2003)
'Dangerous' Chinese Bill Is Thwarted | Article 23 would have automatically banned Hong Kong groups now outlawed on the mainland. (Aug. 21, 2003)
Breakthrough Dancing | A look at the one of the most creative youth ministries in Hong Kong—if not the world. (July 23, 2003)
Hit by the SARS Tornado | Breakthrough reacted quickly when the disease hit Hong Kong. (July 23, 2003)
Inside CT: Chinese Puzzle | Things are changing for China's church. (March 07, 2003)
Under Suspicion | Hong Kong's Christians fear antisedition measures will curb religious liberty. (Feb. 21, 2003)
Did Apostles Go to China? | Evidence suggests Christianity reached China in the first century. (Oct. 21, 2002)
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Working with the Communists | Some evangelicals minister happily within China's state-supervised Three Self church. (Oct. 18, 2002)
Bush: 'I'm One of Them' | Religious persecution allegations set the stage for George Bush's visit to China. (Feb. 27, 2002)
'New' China: Same Old Tricks | Top communists, despite their denials, endorse arrest and torture of Chinese Christians by the thousands. (Feb. 15, 2002)\
The Unlikely Activist | How a bitter atheist helped besieged Christians—and became a believer. (Feb. 15, 2002)
What China's Secret Documents Reveal | The New York archive of religious persecution in China contains numerous government documents that show how the government controls religion. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Zhang Wu-Ji | Tortured to the point of death. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Shi Yun-Chao | Beaten for Hosting Bible Studies. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Gu Xiangmei | Surviving on "tiger's diarrhea." (Feb. 15, 2002)
In Perspective: What is the Falun Gong? | And why does the Chinese government want to destroy it? (Feb. 06, 2002)
Gong's 'Accusers' Claim Torture Induced False Confessions | Letters from imprisoned Christian women in China describe assaults with electric clubs (Feb. 01, 2002)
Gospel View from China | He Qi first saw Jesus' face in an old magazine. Now he paints his own images of the biblical story. (Jan. 25, 2002)
Church Leader Gets Reprieve | China's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)