FILE - Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi and his wife are shown in an undated photo. (Source - Radio Free Asia)
FILE - Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi and his wife are shown in an undated photo. (Source - Radio Free Asia)

HONG KONG - Wang Yi is the founding pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church, one of China's largest unregistered Christian churches.

He was one of three Chinese Christians who traveled to Washington in 2006 to ask then U.S. President George W. Bush to support their fight for religious freedom in China.  

Before Wang Yi became a pastor, he was a respected intellectual and legal scholar, named one of the 50 “most influential public intellectuals” in China by state media Southern People Weekly in 2004.  He converted to Christianity in 2005 and subsequently decided to dedicate his life to church ministry. The Early Rain Covenant Church he founded in 2008 stayed outside the state system which mandates that all religious institutions come under its control.  It grew to 500-member strong and comprised a seminary, a primary school and a unit that supported families of political prisoners -- all are deemed illegal by the Chinese authorities.

His church, popular among the growing middle class in China, was seen as a political nuisance by the authorities because of its local influence and overseas fame.  Its commemoration of the 1989 crackdown of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and the 2008 earthquake drew the wrath of authorities in Beijing. He was also often a critic of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On Dec. 9 last year, just two weeks before Christmas, the authorities closed down the church, raided Wang’s home and detained Wang and his wife, along with some 100 church members.  Most were released although Wang, his wife and 11 others were held incommunicado without access to a lawyer for months. Fifty-four were formally arrested on criminal charges including “subverting state power,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and illegal business operations, said a statement on the church’s Facebook page, which is inaccessible from China.  Church members said Wang and his colleagues were also investigated for economic crimes for allegedly publishing books and DVDs without government approval.

His wife Jiang Rong was released on bail in June but has since lived under round-the-clock police surveillance with their child at a secret location.  She is barred from seeing lawyers, friends and families and the child is escorted to school by the police, said the church’s Facebook page.

A statement written by Wang in anticipation of his arrest in September 2018, "My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience", said he would abide by the government’s treatment of him even though he loathed the authorities’ persecution of the church and deprivation of people’s religious freedom.

“Imprisoned as God’s servant, I would resist all people who resist God with gentleness, I would gladly not abide by any law that does not abide by God,” he said in the statement that was released by his church after his detention.

Wang’s imprisonment came as the ruling Communist party ordered religious leaders to reinterpret religious doctrine to bring it in line with its ideology and presses on with its campaign to “Sinicise” religion.   Critics say China’s goal was to ensure that religious dogma fits its “core socialist values”, and its desire to develop “theology with Chinese characteristics” by making religion more compatible with the Communist Party’s ideology.

Critics say the persecution of the Early Rain Covenant Church was also part of the authorities’ broader crackdown on unofficial churches that began in recent years. Amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulation gave local officials more power to penalize churches for “unauthorized religious gatherings”.

Professor Ying Fuk Tsang, the director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the jailing of a Christian pastor using the “subversion of state power” charge was unprecedented and together with the closing of the church, reflects that the authorities determination to use “the sternest means to target house churches which stood up to the regime.”

“It serves as a warning that other house churches are not allowed to follow in the footsteps of Wang Yi and the Early Rain Covenant Church,” Ying said.