A dispute over an alleged rape in 1990 involving two influential Chinese Christians has rippled through the global Chinese church.

In October 2011, Chai Ling, the famed dissident who survived the Tiananmen Square massacre, emailed another dissident, saying she forgave him for raping her 21 years prior. Since the alleged assault near Princeton University, she had become a Christian and “out of love for Jesus” decided to forgive Yuan Zhiming.

The next morning, Yuan reportedly called her, saying, “The Lord was tormenting [me] all night.” He also had become a Christian since Tiananmen. In 2000, he created China Soul for Christ Foundation to spread the gospel through preaching and documentary films. But Yuan denied raping Chai. He later asked forgiveness for “sexual iniquity.”

After several attempts by Chai at reconciliation, her organization—All Girls Allowed (AGA), which opposes China’s one-child policy—released a public letter calling for Yuan to repent. He resigned from preaching weeks later.

The disputed rape charge is spurring larger discussion in part because Chai’s spiritual mentors gave her conflicting advice. Some urged her to forgive, forget, and move on. Others said she should seek public justice and accountability.

Chai said AGA’s public letter was an attempt at practicing Matthew 18, where Jesus instructs that sins be made public to the church if the sinner doesn’t listen after repeatedly being approached in private.

Zhiqiu Xu, a Columbia International Seminary theology professor, served as Yuan’s witness at one of Chai’s private reconciliation attempts. He believes it’s best for Chai to turn the matter over to the courts.

“Everyone deserves justice,” he said. “However, justice can be administered only on the basis of truth, and truth needs the support of facts and evidence.”

Chai contacted police after China Soul’s board refused to respond to her allegation. Since then, three other women have alleged misconduct by Yuan. China Soul has asked accusers to contact the board directly. The board also condemned a report from an independent panel of 18 Chinese pastors about the newer allegations, saying it spread rumors online. Other leaders praised the report.

Xu, executive director of the International Fellowship of Chinese Churches, says “the Chinese church as a whole owes gratitude” to Chai because her case “purifies the church” and “provides an opportunity for us to improve the behavior code of pastoral staff.”

Traditional Chinese ideas about honor, shame, and saving face further complicate reconciliation, said Jackson Wu, who trains and mentors Chinese pastors. “Conflict is most frequently dealt with by silence,” he said. “The court of public opinion is not blind. So often justice eludes us. Victories are superficial.”

Chai believes the Matthew 18 process was helpful to her. “My motive in making this issue public,” she said, “is simply to stop any sexual violence that still may be going on.”

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