Authorities in China’s Shanxi Province have arrested three leaders of the Linfen Covenant House Church on charges of illegally amassing around £85,000.
Li Jie, Han Xiaodong, and Wang Qiang are facing charges of forming a criminal “clique” and running an illegal organization without state approval. The indictment further alleges that the leaders deceived individuals into making tithes and offerings to the church.
House churches, like the Linfen Covenant House Church, are generally considered illegal in China as they are often unregistered and not sanctioned by the government. Many churches either face denial of registration or deliberately choose not to register due to concerns over government control, such as surveillance and allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
The situation escalated when Li Jie and Han Xiaodong were detained following a church raid in August 2022. They were subjected to sleep deprivation for three days and three nights. Subsequently, in September 2022, Li Jie and Han Xiaodong were officially arrested, while Wang Qiang was detained in November 2022 and formally arrested in December 2022, all on fraud charges.
Following the arrests, reports from Christian persecution charities Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and China Aid revealed that members of the Linfen Covenant House Church faced repeated harassment, coercion, and intimidation by local authorities. Some individuals were forced to provide false evidence and prohibited from attending church services.
In response to the situation, the church released a “letter of intercession” condemning the prosecution of its leaders. The church emphasized that the persecution of a “God-fearing church” and the characterization of it as a “criminal clique” were unprecedented actions since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. They called on people to pray for the safe release of the three leaders and highlighted the violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.
China revised its Regulations on Religious Affairs in February 2018, imposing registration requirements and criteria on religious organizations to strengthen state control over religious activities. Li Jie, one of the accused leaders, had previously criticized this revision by signing a joint statement. Similarly, Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Church, another signatory of the statement, was detained in December 2018 and later sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations.”
It is worth noting that in recent years, an increasing number of religious leaders in China have faced prosecution under charges of fraud, which can carry lengthy prison sentences. Mervyn Thomas, Founder and President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), has strongly criticized the charges against the Linfen Covenant House Church leaders as “blatantly unjust.” Thomas highlighted the coercive methods used by the police, including sleep deprivation and torture, to extract evidence from detainees and church members.
Thomas called on the international community to utilize every available opportunity to urge the Chinese government to cease the prosecution of unregistered religious groups, allowing them to practice their religion and peacefully advocate for freedom of religion or belief in China.
The arrest and prosecution of the Linfen Covenant House Church leaders shows the ongoing challenges faced by unregistered religious groups in China and the concerns regarding religious freedom and human rights in the country.