Beijing (AsiaNews) - At least 12 Protestants are in jail for participating in an "illegal gathering" to study the Bible. The authorities targeted them because some of them are close to the New Citizens movement, a dissident group demanding respect for China's constitution and transparency with regards to the assets owned by the country's leaders.
The 12 Christians were arrested on 24 January. Two days later, they were charged, but the families of the prisoners still have not received any legal notice as to the reasons for their detention.
On that same day, New Citizens Movement leader Xu Zhiyong went on trial on trumpeted up charges. According to local sources, some members of his group demonstrated in front of the courthouse where he is being tried on charges of "disturbing the public order".
The Protestant community in a question is a house church called 'Holy Love Fellowship' (Sheng You Tuanqi in Chinese). It is led by Xu Yonghai he and his wife. House churches are Christian communities that are not registered with China's Religious Affairs Bureau.
According to a report by China Change, Xu and 17 other people met on 24 January at a house to study the Bible. The police eventually moved in, accusing them of "illegal gathering". In China, all meetings of two or three Christians or more are deemed "illegal".
After letting some of the older participants go, police forcibly took the rest to a station for interrogation. They were charged two days later with "illegal assembly, parade and demonstration."
Contacted two days ago by his attorney, human rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun, Xu Yonghai said that his house church has existed for at least 25 years. Although he was arrested twice before, the authorities never asked him to register his community, nor did they treat it as "illegal".
Days before his arrest, during another seminar in biblical studies, in the same house, a member of the Office for Civil Affairs named Haibing, arrived accusing those present of illegal gathering since the community was not registered.
According to Hu Shigen, a former dissident and member of the group, the authorities want to suppress the community because it includes many petitioners and former dissidents.
For several years, many dissidents, who once railed against unjust structures and called for respect for human rights, discovered the Christian faith as a source of spiritual comfort as well as justification for their fight.
Suspicious, the authorities tightly monitor Christian groups, including state-sanctioned communities. The combination of religion and political dissent is seen as potential threat, especially when important community leaders convert to Christianity.
Xu Yonghai is one example. After graduating from Beijing Medical College in 1984, Xu worked in several Beijing hospitals. In 1989, he became a Christian.
In 1995, he was sentenced to two years of re-education through labour for signing an appeal for democracy and the rule of law to mark the 6th anniversary of the Tiananmen movement.
In 2003, he was given two years in prison for helping a persecuted house church in Anshan (Liaoning).
Since his release in 2006, he has been under house arrest and surveillance and has never been able to resume his medical profession.