Twice-jailed pastor runs defiant church in China Crackdowns fail to halt rise in faith

January 03, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

CANTON, China -- It's "youth night" at the Damazhan church and dozens of young Chinese stream down a dark, narrow alley into an even narrower, three-story house, where they cram into tiny pews to sing hymns and listen to a man of remarkable faith.

Lin Xiangao spent two stints in prison -- 21 years in all -- for refusing to bend his evangelical Christian beliefs to the dictates of Chinese socialism, and he isn't about to stop preaching the gospel now.

Since he last was released from prison in 1978, the Baptist pastor, known outside China as the Rev. Samuel Lamb, has steadily built his congregation until it now numbers more than 1,100.

Six days a week, as many as 300 Christians at a time pack into every cranny of Mr. Lin's small house to pray. Half huddle before him on the third floor, and half watch him on the second floor via a closed-circuit TV system.

Such private churches -- called "house churches" -- are illegal in China. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by China's 1982 constitution, but observances are supposed to be carried out within state churches that are instruments of both prayer and political control.

Clandestine churches

Mr. Lin's church is only one of perhaps 20,000 house churches constituting a rapidly growing Christian movement in China. But it is unique in its open operation; virtually all others are more clandestine.

The piety of the scene at Damazhan ("Big Horse Station") Lane contrasts starkly with both the official atheism of the Chinese Communist Party and the raw commercialism that has taken over this booming, southern Chinese city and much of the rest of coastal China.

Worshipers' rhythmic Cantonese tones echo off the house's wooden rafters as they read aloud together from Bibles written in Chinese characters. Their faces display an unusual degree of public emotion for China.

"There's a lot of warm love here," says Cheng Ying Ai, a 20-year-old cashier, who prayed at Mr. Lin's church for four years. "State churches are just there so that foreigners will think there is freedom of religion in China."

Ms. Cheng and many of Mr. Lin's other congregants say police have come to their home, work place or school to warn them to stop attending his church. Over the past few years, the $l 68-year-old pastor has been repeatedly hauled in by security agents for hours of grilling in an effort to force him to register his church with the state.

A policeman has been moved into the first floor of Mr. Lin's house. Agents have confiscated stacks of Bibles and other religious materials from the church -- including 15,000 Bibles donated by foreigners and taken in a raid on the home of an associate in October.

But Mr. Lin, whose given name translates as "sacrificial lamb," still refuses to preach under the state's heavy hand.

"If we were to register with the state, then we would have a lot of restrictions. We obey the government, but our faith is controlled by God -- not by non-believers," Mr. Lin says. "I'm not afraid because I'm ready to go to prison a third time.

"If they close this church, that's the Lord's will," he adds with a grin. "But of course I'd become a martyr. And the more persecution, the more repression we've faced, the more this church has grown."

Beyond his faith, Mr. Lin appears to be somewhat protected from authorities by his unusually high profile among foreign Christians.

The Rev. Billy Graham has visited his church. Representatives of President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan also are said to have stopped by. On a recent Saturday night, several North American missionaries were brought there by Hong Kong Chinese Christians.

Mr. Lin is quick to forge these connections -- by passing out to foreign visitors pictures of himself with Mr. Graham, English-language schedules of his services and hardbound copies of "Bold as a Lamb," his English biography written by a U.S. Christian.

"The Chinese government knows people are watching Pastor Lin, and they're not anxious to enhance their image as a repressive regime by cracking down on him too hard," says John Barwick of the Chinese Church Research Center, a Protestant group in Hong Kong.

"Where no one is watching, however, the government is not at all hesitant to imprison people involved in house churches. China is opening up on the economic side, but there's still a strong commitment to political control, and that includes religion," Mr. Barwick says.

Growing despite crackdowns

Controlling religion is a delicate task for the Chinese government, one in which it seems to be failing despite frequent crackdowns over the past few years.

China's state churches are structured to isolate religion and to combat official fears of foreign political influence, fears given credence by nationalist movements among Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in the western Xinjiang region.

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