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06 February 2012

Pastor Shi Enhao’s release: new hope for Christians in China?

Pastor Shi Enhao’s release: new hope for Christians in China?

by Asha Kurien

The early release of Pastor Shi Enhao, pastor of a church in Jiangsu province and deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, on 20 January was well welcomed albeit unexpected. China Aid had positioned his case as number three on its list of 2011's 'Top 10 cases of Persecution of Churches and Christians in China'.

Pastor Shi had been sentenced last July to a two-year RTL (Re-education Through Labour) for "holding illegal meetings and organising illegal venues for religious meetings", according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). At the time of his arrest, his church was ordered to stop meeting and the car, musical instruments, cash donations, and choir robes that belonged to the church were confiscated by the police.

RTL is a mechanism the Chinese government put into place in the 1950s in order to punish minor crimes. Although many have appealed for its elimination owing to the human rights offences associated with it, more than three million people have been sent to labour camps since its inception. According to Human Rights Watch: "There are five major problems with re-education through labour: the lack of any kind of procedural restraints, the use of re-education to incarcerate political and religious dissidents, the problems of appeal; the conditions in the camps, and the system of 'retention for in camp employment' that permits authorities to keep prisoners in the camps after the expiration of their sentences."

After serving six months of his sentence, Pastor Shi was released, the reason for which remains unknown. An early release from the labour camps is uncommon, with the exception of those struggling with illness.

The arrest last year was not the first time Pastor Shi was harassed. He and other members of the Chinese House Church Alliance, an umbrella organisation for house churches in the country, have faced arrest, imprisonment and harassment several times in the past. According to CSW: "Following the events of the Arab Spring, the Chinese government has become even more wary of unauthorised large gatherings of people, and there has been a crackdown on political dissidents, including lawyers, activists, writers, bloggers and artists. Government officials sometimes see church groups as a threat because of the large groups of people gathered without authorisation."

Furthermore, just last week, China Aid released the shocking news of the abduction and torture of an overseas Chinese Christian who visited persecuted house churches in China. Jenny Chen, motivated by empathy towards her fellow believers, travelled to Beijing and Shanxi last December. While she was there, she met a senior pastor who has been under house arrest since April 2011 and visited two persecuted house churches, one of them being number one on China Aid's 'Top 10 cases of Persecution of Churches and Christians in China' in 2011. The Chinese security forces followed her closely and upon kidnapping her, asked her which mission agency she was associated with. Although she denied any affiliation with overseas mission organisations, she was physically abused and denied food and water for two days. She made a narrow escape out of China when she was taken to a hospital to be treated for pneumonia.

When viewed in the light of incidents such as these, the news of Pastor Shi's release is not a definite sign that the situation for Christians in China has improved. International organisations such as Open Doors, CSW and Release International continue to exert pressure on the Chinese government to stay faithful to the provision for religious freedom as stated in its constitution.