Beijing (AsiaNews) - Li Wenxi, a Christian bookseller in Beijing who wanted to help the faithful in Taiyuan (Shanxi) open their own religious bookstore, was beaten, threatened and arrested by local police. "Don't you dare bring Christianity to Shanxi! This place is ours," they told him. Now Li Caihong, Li Wenxi's wife, is seeking help online because her husband has been held without trial in a provincial prison for the past three months.
Li's story began in December, when he left Beijing for Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province (in northern China), in order to help local Christians open a Christian bookstore. Knowledgeable about his market, he managed to run a bookstore in the capital and survive. In Shanxi, the situation was not as favourable.
Right after its opening, state security agents raided the new store and confiscated hundreds of religious books Li had brought with him. A few days later, they phoned him and said told him that they would return the books.
Without realising it was a trap, Li went to the local police station. That was the last time Li's wife Caihong heard from him. Since then, she has been praying for him every day. Police eventually told her that her husband had been charged with "illegally operating a business". They also refused to grant him bail, stressing the seriousness of his "crime".
Desperate, Caihong decided to turn to the internet to get her husband back to her two children, going on Weibo, China's popular social media website, to tell her story and ask for help.
Li's Weibo message was reposted over 4,000 times and received hundreds of comments. "Shanxi is one of the places where Christians are persecuted with the harshest measures," one blogger wrote.
Taiyuan's officials did the same in a statement on their website in March. "Yingze District successfully clamped down on a case of Christianity," they claimed in an article gloating about their raid against an 'underground' congregation. However, it was swamped with criticism after someone posted the article on Weibo, forcing the authorities to pull it.
In China, freedom of worship is allowed only in buildings and with staff registered with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Prayers and religious services held in unauthorised places are illegal.
Many Catholics and Protestants choose however to risk the wrath of the law to avoid the stifling control by local patriotic associations. Protestant groups have sometimes asked for a permit to build a church, but local governments have refused their requests.
Since 2007, a campaign has been underway against underground Protestant communities, which number around 50 million members according to conservative estimates.
The campaign's goal is to incorporate such communities into the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-controlled Protestant organisation, or simply suppress them.