01/15/2008, 00.00
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Police arrest a group of orphans "guilty" of living with an underground Christian

In the village of Sanhe, Hubei province, the police interrupted the Christmas festivities of a little orphanage run by a famous Christian leader, who has been arrested 12 times for his leading role in the life of China's unauthorised domestic churches.

Sanhe (AsiaNews) - Police in the central province of Hubei arrested, on Christmas Eve, a group of orphans and Christian volunteers who were preparing to celebrate the holiday with them. The agents confined the children to a hotel, and "convinced" the owner of the land that the orphanage stands on to evict the renters. This is the charge of the China Aid Association (CAA), a non-governmental organisation based in the United States that works for religious freedom in China.

According to the CAA, Protestant pastor Ming Xuan Zhang - who takes care of the orphans - spent the days after Christmas looking for a new location for his institute, with no success. This is because the director of public security for the village of Sanhe, together with officials of the Religious Bureau and United Work Front Department, threatened the landowners who "might have decided to help Ming".

This persecution is explained by the leading role that pastor Zhang plays in China's unauthorised domestic churches. Affectionately known as "Bike", the Protestant leader has been arrested twelve times by the authorities, who are trying to separate him from the Christian communities.

In 2006, American president George W. Bush asked to meet with Zhang during an official visit to China. The permission was not granted, because of the "disappearance" of Zhang. In reality, says the CAA, the police of Hubei detained him and kept him out of sight for the entire duration of the president's trip.

The Protestant leader has twice written to Chinese president Hu Jintao seeking justice, and asking for a stop to this campaign of persecution against himself and his orphans. He received no reply, and his orphans continue to live without a home of their own.

Beijing permits the practice of evangelical Christianity only within the Movement of the Three Autonomies (MTA), created in 1950 after Mao came to power, foreign missionaries were expelled, and Chinese Christian leaders were imprisoned. The unofficial statistics say that in China there are 10 million official Protestants, all united in the MTA.

The unauthorised Protestants, who meet in unregistered "domestic churches", are estimated at over 50 million. Over the past year, the government arrested 1,958 of them, between pastors and faithful.

According to a secret document of the Chinese communist party of Hubei province, which was leaked to the West last November, there is a campaign underway in China to "normalise" the underground Protestant Churches by offering them two possibilities: either join the Movement of the Three Autonomies (the Protestant communities led by the patriotic associations) or be suppressed.

The campaign is in clear opposition to the UN guidelines on religious freedom, which ban the distinction between religious activities that are licit (because they are controlled by the state) and activities that are illicit only because they are not controlled by the government.

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