Beijing (AsiaNews) Rev Allen Yuan Xiangchen, one of the pillars of the mainland's unofficial Protestant church movement, was laid to rest in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. Some 2,500 people attended the funeral service, mostly from house churches. Plain-clothed policemen prevented another thousand from participating.
Allen Yuan died in a Beijing hospital on August 16, surrounded by his wife and six children. He was 91. He was highly respected by the members of the unofficial Protestant Church movement for his steadfast opposition to the official Church.
Once, invited to the White House, he refused a breakfast prayer meeting because he did not want to worship with a member of the official Protestant Church.
The Chinese government allows religious activities only within official and registered patriotic associations, which function as virtual tools of control for the Chinese Communist Party over religious life in the various communities.
Yuan began his mission right after Japan's surrender in 1945, helped by a Norwegian clergyman. He opened a prayer room in Beijing to preach the Gospel. Every year saw him baptise 20 to 30 people.
In 1950, a year after the Communist takeover, the government set up the Three Self Patriotic Movement to develop China-centred national churches under party control. Yuan and other pastors refused to join.
He was arrested in 1958 and sentenced to life in prison for "for counter-revolutionary crimes".
In a testimonial written years later (and published by Voice of Martyrs), he said: "During those years in prison my wife suffered untold hardships in bringing up the children. I was sent to near the Russian border doing farm work, growing rice. Wang Ming Dao [a fellow pastor also sentenced to the camp] and I thought we would die martyrs there. . . ."
"In the labour camp it was very cold," he wrote, "food was bad, and the work was hard, but in 22 years I never once got sick. I was thin and wore glasses, but I came back alive; many did not. I also had no Bible for the 22 years and there were no other Protestant Christians there. I met only four Catholic priests. They were in the same situation I was in; they refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association."
Yuan was released in 1979 and went back to do God's work. His friends said he never saw his mission as being "underground"; he never concealed what he did.
"He was never fearful as the leader of the house church in Beijing. He was never hiding anything he was doing," said Australian missionary John Short who knew Yuan.
Before his death, Allen Yuan asked his friends to pray "for the lost millions of China, for the newcomers and new believers, for the leaders our country".
According to official figures, Protestants in the official Church (the Three Self Patriotic Movement) number some ten million. In the unofficial Protestant house churches, the number of faithful is estimated at over 50 million.