In what is believed to be the first suit against a government religious authority in China, the chief organizer of the Qiuyu Blessings Church—a Christian house church in Chengdu city—is suing the Shuangliu County Bureau of People's Religious Affairs for illegally shutting down a religious gathering held by the church on May 2, 2008.
"This is a test case about the extent of the religious freedom that the Chinese government says its people enjoy," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. "We are encouraged that house church members are beginning to use the law as a tool to defend their rights. This is the only way toward building a civil society."
On May 2, about 40 officials from the county religious authorities and the police interrupted the gathering held at a resort hotel in Shuangliu county that day, photographed and questioned worshippers, and told them they were "suspected of being involved in illegal religious practices." They also confiscated bibles and religious educational material. A few days later, the church received an after-the-fact official order banning the gathering.
In July this year, representatives of the Qiuyu Church unsuccessfully challenged the ban. The Chengdu authorities affirmed the earlier decision, stating that "the facts were clear, the evidence was ample … the procedure was lawful."
The complaint, filed by Wang Yi (王怡) on behalf of the church, charges that the raid was illegal because the raiding officers did not provide a legal basis for their action, and the subsequent unsigned order banning the event also failed to cite specifically what regulations were violated. Wang wants this order annulled.
Human Rights in China learned that when Wang Yi delivered the complaint to the Shuangliu County Court on Wednesday, September 16, the judge in charge of receiving complaints said the evidence Wang presented was insufficient to support the case. Wang returned the following day with more documentation, but the judge refused to issue a receipt for the complaint and the supporting documents, or a notification to accept the case. By law, a court has seven days to decide whether it accepts a case.
The right to freedom of religious belief and practice in China is guaranteed by both the PRC Constitution and the 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs (Article 36 of the Constitution and Article 2 of the 2005 Regulations state that citizens of China "enjoy freedom of religion.") However, the Chinese government allows public worship only in state-sanctioned churches controlled by government authorities. Those who want to practice their faith without official interference are permitted only to worship at home—in "house churches." But the government often resorts to a provision in the 2005 Regulations that prohibits religious activities from taking place in "non-religious" locations in order to raid house churches and harass religious practitioners.
On August 10 this year, during the Beijing Olympics, Beijing house church activist Hua Huiqi (华惠棋) was abducted by State Security police while on his way to a service at a state-sanctioned church—a service to which the Chinese government had invited U.S. President George Bush. Hua escaped his captors and is still in hiding.
Wang said that he hopes this case will prompt other house churches in China to use legal procedures and the court to assert their right to freedom of religion. "Through this case, we hope to be able to pursue our freedom of religion without going to jail, and that the government will use rational and lawful means to deal with its conflicts with house churches," Wang said.
For more information on Hua Huiqi, see:
For background information on religious freedom in China, see: