By Evan Osnos : Tribune correspondent

June 24, 2008

JINAN, China—

At a highway rest stop just after dawn, Rev. Zhang Mingxuan answered his cell phone and resumed looking for trouble.

“Did you contact the lawyer I mentioned?” Zhang asked the caller, a rural church leader under pressure from his local government. “He will help you.”

The caller was another addition to Zhang’s unprecedented experiment: an alliance of Chinese church leaders, worshipers and public-interest lawyers who share the goal of winning greater rights and recognition for their faith.

With China in the throes of a religious awakening, Christian clerics and worshippers have emerged as an unexpected voice for reform and pluralism.

From remote villages to elite universities, Christians form a diverse lobby that is rare in a nation split by class, opportunity and geography.

“Christianity has probably become China’s largest non-governmental organization,” said Li Fan, a leading reform advocate in Beijing who is not a Christian.

Their drive for reform has proved particularly persistent because many Christians consider themselves bound by an authority higher than the government, and their beliefs inspire them to demand greater rights of expression and organization.

“Only by uniting all [unofficial] churches can we preach to all 1.3 billion Chinese people,” said Zhang, a retired barber and grandfather.

Traveling by train and bus from church to church, he serves as a combination pastor-legal adviser. Such activism comes at no small risk. By his count, Zhang has been detained 14 times—most recently just last week.

As China’s Christian population has climbed to an estimated 70 million, a growing number of lawyers and scholars have converted to Christianity and turned their skills to the issue of religious freedom. They are teaming up with churches to challenge the government in court, suing for the rights they believe are guaranteed under China’s constitution.

They take inspiration from the American civil rights movement and the ideals symbolized by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And they hope that holding the country to account for its pledges of religious freedom will nudge China toward greater respect for its citizens’ other rights as well.

China’s Communist Party is wary of independent-minded movements. When the spiritual group Falun Gong agitated for greater recognition a decade ago, it was declared a cult. Its members have been routinely arrested ever since.

The Christian movement is unlikely to face the same fate. Christianity is permitted under China’s constitution, and the government has long supported a network of official Christian churches. But the future of activism is unclear for those who choose to worship outside the state system, in what the Chinese call “house churches.”

There is unmistakable new freedom to press for religious rights in court, but activists who push too far face arrest. The lines around what is legal are unclear because they hinge largely on how local bureaucrats interpret the nation’s laws on religion. Two churches of the same size and openness, for instance, might face very different fates, because one pastor has sought compromises with local authorities while another has rejected official intrusions.

The laws allow freedom of expression—and wide latitude to curb it. “The country protects normal religious activities,” said Ma Yuhong, a senior official in charge of Christian affairs under the government’s State Administration for Religious Affairs. “On the other hand, you can’t make use of religion to interfere in the country’s administration.”

Clamping down on the drive for religious rights would not be easy. The government is confronting an uncertain new player: a vast movement for change in the name of God.

“I can accept your leadership,” said Li Jianqiang, a Christian lawyer in the eastern city of Qingdao. “But if you, the Communist Party, directly violate the laws of God, then Christians can only listen to the will of God. They cannot listen to your will.”

Bumping along in the back of a mini-bus, Zhang Mingxuan cuts an unlikely profile as an agitator. At 57 years old, he still has the fastidious wardrobe and coiffure from his days running a beauty salon in rural Henan province.

In his new role, he has been charged with everything from “disturbing public order” to distributing improper religious materials. Last Thursday Zhang was aboard a public bus, bound for a meeting in Beijing with a delegate from the European Parliament, when police stopped him.

He said he was detained for 36 hours, then released without explanation. Police declined requests for information about the case.

Zhang and his family move frequently from apartment to apartment on the fringes of Beijing because, they believe, landlords are pressured by police to evict them. Lawyers familiar with his case say police have warned them to rein him in, but he continues to organize churches and preach the need for uniting to demand greater rights.

“I am an honest citizen. Everything I do is legal,” Zhang said. “But in the eyes of the Communist Party, everybody in my family- me, my wife, my two sons and daughter-in-law—we are dangerous people. Our phone is bugged. We are followed
everywhere. Wherever we stay, we are thrown out.”

Zhang was born in a poor village. He grew up through years of famine in the countryside and, while still a teenager, he concluded that living off the land would forever put him at the mercy of the harvest.

“But I found that barbers were the freest people,” he said. “In summer, they could work in the shade under a tree. And in winter, in a warm room. No barber  ever died of hunger.”

He married a preacher’s daughter, who introduced him to Christianity. But it wasn’t until Zhang’s business foundered that he decided that religion would be his future. He began evangelizing wherever he could: to customers in his barber’s chair, to passengers on the bus. In 1998 he spent four months bicycling from province to province, meeting church leaders and hearing tales of fights over religious expression. Local preachers, he concluded, were being treated “like drug dealers.”

“During that time, I saw ordinary people complaining of injustice everywhere. No one spoke up for them,” Zhang said. “I realized that nobody but Jesus can save this country and save the people.”

He moved to Beijing and, in 2005, he and others established the House Church Alliance. The alliance is the first of its kind, said Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association, a Texas-based advocacy group for Christians.

“They are the first group willing to stand up and operate aboveground,” Fu said. “Traditionally, they would have been underground. But they took a public role, educating churches and pastors on how to protect themselves with existing laws,
and to use lawyers to protect their rights.”

The alliance claims followers in provinces across the country, representing 300,000 Christians, but those figures are impossible to verify. Still, it was enough to draw the concern of the government. When Zhang tried to get official
approval, his application for registration was denied.

He kept working anyway, and he has emerged as a pivotal link between urban intellectuals and rural believers.


After eight hours on the road from Beijing, Zhang’s mini-bus turned off the paved two-lane road in eastern Shandong province and down a strip of dirt. He was on his way to see another local church in a standoff with authorities. He
pulled up before a metal gate, which opened to reveal the modest brick home of Cheng Zhangan, a construction worker with the tanned face of a life in the sun and the worried expression of a man unsure of what he had gotten himself into.

Cheng, 43, once helped construct the local village church, part of China’s officially sanctioned Christian system known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Over time, however, he grew disenchanted with the state church, so Cheng and roughly 50 of his neighbors decided to use an empty building beside his home to build their own unofficial church, joining an estimated 50 million Chinese Christians who have chosen to worship outside the state system.

Last August, Cheng and his neighbors organized a summer camp for local students in rural Yutai county to teach them, as he put it, “to take the right road, fear God, listen to their parents, obey various rules and regulations of the country, and respect teachers.”

Camp was still in session when police arrived. They searched his home, confiscated books and photos and detained him, he said, for running an illegal religious gathering.

They also cited him for violating a national regulation that bans anyone younger than 18 from receiving formal religious education, though that regulation is not uniformly enforced. Cheng challenged their authority to arrest him, not only on
the letter of the law but on the basis of the law.

“[The officer in charge] said, ‘You have to follow what we say.’ I said, ‘I should worship you? I won’t get everlasting life if I worship you! I won’t get into heaven. I won’t get anything if I worship you!’ ”

Cheng was fined 1,000 yuan, he said, the equivalent of $145. But he didn’t stop complaining. He praised top leaders in Beijing for adopting a greater tolerance of religion, but he blamed local bureaucrats for failing to heed that change.

He did what his parents’ generation rarely would have done: He struck back.

He contended that authorities lacked a search warrant and failed to provide a receipt certifying that he had paid his fine. He formally requested that the local government review the decision, but it was upheld. He appealed to the county court, and, again, the verdict was upheld. He appealed again to a higher
court, and his case is pending.

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