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House churches in China

December 1998

Leaders of major house-church movements in China have issued a ‘united appeal’ calling on the Chinese Government to recognise the legitimacy of Christian groups outside the government-approved ‘Three Self Patriotic Movement’.

The seven-point statement, issued from an unidentified location in Henan province and dated 22 August 1998, was reportedly drafted by twelve house church leaders from various provinces. Their repeated use of the term ‘Chinese House Church’ suggests that these leaders view themselves not as members of scattered, unrelated groups but rather as part of a larger body.

In the first such statement directed at the Chinese Government, these leaders call on the government to accept the reality of the growth within the unofficial church, putting the number of believers in the house churches at 80 million, compared with 10 million in the official church. The 80 million figure is based on foreign estimates, the house-church leaders said. (Independent estimates of the numbers of Christians in China vary from 33 million to 100 million.)

Specific demands

The statement includes the following specific demands.

1. The unconditional release from detention of Christians from all church backgrounds (ten denominations or church networks are mentioned by name) who have been imprisoned for the gospel’s sake.

2. Modifications of regulations that limit the activities of house churches.

3. Clarification of the definition of ‘cult’ — a label applied in recent years to some Christian groups outside the official church that have been singled out for attacks by the government.

The statement also calls on the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to open dialogue with representatives of the house churches.

Boldness and risk

Significantly absent from the statement is any direct attack on either the Communist Party or the Three Self Patriotic Movement. Rather, the appeal asks the Chinese Government to recognise the house churches as a channel of God’s blessing to China, while pointing out that attacking Christians who preach the gospel will only bring harm to China. Calling the ‘Three Self Church’ a denomination, the appeal says that believers in the official as well as the unofficial churches are all part of mainstream Christianity in China — a fact that is recognised internationally, says the appeal.

The decision of leaders in China’s unofficial church to take the bold and risky step of appealing directly to their government reflects their fear that persecution of Christians outside the official church could increase. It also reflects their frustration with current policies, which effectively render illegal their otherwise orthodox Christian activities.

The Chinese Government has not responded officially to the appeal, although a China Christian Council leader in Shanghai warned against making too much of the document, saying that crackdowns against house churches may occur in some rural areas but are not central government policy.

From a China Source, Nenan Province