In a recent conversation with a house church pastor in China, I asked him about the current environment for his church and how its people relate (or do not relate) to the local authorities. "It's simple," he said. "We're illegal, but free!" What he meant of course was that they are operating outside the system that requires all social and religious organizations to register with a government body. Being outside the system means they do not have to operate under the restrictive supervision of those bodies. His point was that as long as they do not cause trouble for the authorities, they are largely left alone.
ChinaSource recently asked six leaders of house churches in various parts of the country to tell us about the current environment in their location as well as their attitude towards the local authorities and the issue of registration.
Church #1: In the Southeast
This church meets in a rented apartment. They have two services on Sundays each averaging 30-40 people in attendance. They describe the current political environment as more closed than open. They try not to have anything to do with the local police or other officials, and they have no intentions of registering under the current policies.
Church #2: In the Southeast
Meeting in rented office space, which is approximately 110 square meters in size, this church has one service on Sunday with nearly 100 people in attendance. In addition, they rent a smaller office in the same building to hold Sunday School classes. Regarding the political environment, this church leader described it as "loose," saying that among six different groups in the city only one is experiencing pressure from the local authorities.
This leader does not feel that the relationship with the local police or other officials is important; rather, it is just one of many relationships they must manage. Asked about registration, he replied that his church has no desire to register. "Registration is not a bad thing, but we are not going to register with the local government if it doesn't change its policy towards religion."
Church #3: In the Northeast
This church meets at two different sites, both of which are rented space. One site has 40 in attendance while the other has 100. Normally they do not have trouble with the local authorities, although recently there have been some problems with the larger group.
The leader feels that it is important to respect the local authorities and talk to them when necessary. "I talk to them," he said, "only when they come to talk to me." The local police want the church to register, but they continue to refuse to do so. "The church belongs to God," said the leader.
Church #4: In Beijing
The 80 to 90 members of this church also meet in a rented apartment, approximately 180 square meters in size. Because of its location in politically sensitive Beijing, they do experience pressure. However, the pastor said, "We have relative freedom." The property management company has recently come by for an inspection of their site, but they have not interfered with their gatherings. The local police did an inspection in 2012, prior to the Party meetings, and they recorded that it was an unregistered church. "Nothing came of that," commented the pastor, "so you can say that we have de facto existence."
The pastor believes that it is important to have a relationship with the relevant agencies, in this case the property management company and the local police who do inspections from time to time. "Regarding registration," he says, "Due to the recent troubles experienced by the Shouwang Church,* there is a consensus among Beijing pastors that registration is not possible under the current religious policies.
Church #5: In Beijing
With a membership of around 50, this church meets in a rented apartment. The pastor describes the environment they experience to be rather loose, saying that the police have never interfered with their meetings.
Regarding relationships with the authorities, this leader said it is important to have a good attitude if they are approached. He told of being visited by the Public Security Bureau one time. They were able to have a good discussion and were told that it was okay to meet as long as there were no problems with the neighbors. "We respect them," he said, "but we have our bottom line."
On the issue of registration, the leader said that they would not consider registration without a guarantee of religious freedom. He noted that they have seen many churches that have registered who are now under strict supervision.
Church #6: In the Southeast
This church, made up of approximately 30 people, meets in a rented apartment building. The local police occasionally make inspection visits to talk with the pastor. They want to get a better understanding of the situation and what religion is being practiced. They often ask about the number of people attending and the meeting times. The overall environment for this church is quite relaxed.
In general, they do not have anything to do with the government so they feel they do not need to work at maintaining a relationship. The church has no plans to register under the current system; however, they are interested in seeking some other kind of official recognition or status that would allow them transparency. As long as they do not appear to be hiding, the government departments take a relaxed attitude.
* In 2011, after the landlord broke their lease, the Shouwang Church in Beijing attempted to conduct their services in an outdoor location in Beijing. This prompted a harsh response by the authorities. Even though the church remains functioning in scattered small groups, the leaders remain under house arrest.
Image Credit: China Partners