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31 July 2023

Imprisoned for going to church: tightening restrictions in China

Christians in China are increasing restrictions and surveillance as the authorities clamp down on threats to their power. One lady who has experienced this first-hand is Xiao Ai*. But rather than be knocked back by the persecution, she instead saw the opportunities it gave her...

Chinese Christian
Chinese Christians are hoping the trend towards surveillance and religious restrictions will be reversed

“Who is the person in charge of this gathering?” a man in uniform demanded.

This is the first question Xiao Ai remembers, asked by one of the local officials who stormed her house in China more than a year ago. She and 20 other church members were praying and worshiping the Lord.

“Me,” said Xiao Ai, hoping to protect the others. “I am the owner of this house. My mother is sick; I invited my friends over to pray for her.”

"I was so afraid at the beginning, but I knew the Lord was with me. I don’t need to be afraid." Xiao Ai

Her words didn’t stop the authorities searching the house, seizing Bibles and other Christian materials, and writing down the names and details of everyone who was gathered there.

Another official pointed at Xiao Ai and four of the others, who had been identified as church leaders. “You – come with us to the police station.”

Tightening restrictions on the church

Xiao Ai knew this day would come. She isn’t naïve, and she had heard what was happening to other house churches in China. To her mind, it was more a question of ‘when’ than ‘if’.

After 2018, laws restricting religious activities had got much harsher – part of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy of ‘Sinicisation’ of religion; that is, making it ‘more Chinese’ and insisting it conform to Communist ideology. Christianity is considered a Western threat by Xi Jinping, the leader of China.

To avoid unwanted and increased monitoring and control, many church leaders and other believers chose to lie low. It has become common for bigger churches to break into smaller groups and become more discreet in their activities, to avoid any attention from the authorities. The church has become wiser and more creative, while still taking risks for the gospel. These courageous men and women have had to learn to become ‘shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16) while remaining strong in Christ.

Xiao Ai’s church had certainly put measures in place to avoid detection. Every time they had fellowship, it was at a different venue. Each member agreed that, if a gathering was discovered by authorities, the host would claim full responsibility and spare the others who’d gathered. “This is for God,” they said.

Held in prison

Xiao Ai and the four other church members were taken to the detention centre, where they were put in separate cells. In Xiao Ai’s cell were two members of a cult, who’d also been brought in for contravening China’s religious laws. Showing what a bold woman of Christ she is, Xiao Ai saw this detention as an opportunity to share the gospel.

“I think our Father wanted me to come to this place for good things,” she says. “My cellmates were all brainwashed from their cultic belief. I need to help them know the truth and tell them about the good news of Jesus.” Like Paul and Silas in Acts, Xiao Ai ‘kept praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25). The two other women didn’t choose to follow Jesus, but were keen to see Xiao Ai again in the future.

“Also, I had been so busy with my ministry and had little time to rest and really build an intimate relationship with the Lord,” adds Xiao Ai. “This was my chance to have solitude with God — me and Him alone. This was my chance to build my relationship with Him even more!”

"As the Bible says, the Holy Spirit will teach us how to answer when we are confronted by the authorities." Xiao Ai

A few days into her detention, authorities called her and the others in for interrogation. She noticed that the authorities mistook her as a cult member.

“It was an opportunity for me to tell them the difference between a cult and Christianity,” she says. “During the interrogation, I was silently praying hard in my heart for us to answer with God’s wisdom. And just like what the Bible says, the Holy Spirit will teach us how to answer when we are confronted by the authorities.

“I was so afraid at the beginning, but I knew the Lord was with me. Because He allowed this to happen, I put my trust in Him. I don’t need to be afraid.”

Released to a loving church family

After almost two weeks of being detained, Xiao Ai was finally released and reunited with her family and friends. Her husband – who is not a Christian – was angry with her. But every time Xiao Ai feels discouraged, she reminds herself of God’s faithfulness to her – and the loving kindness of her church family, who sent fruit, blankets and other necessities, as well as caring for Xiao Ai’s mother, who has a chronic illness.

“I experienced overflowing love from my church family. The love they showered me with was never before seen. One official witnessed all these, and he was also amazed by the love that knitted us together, he said, ‘You guys are even closer than those who are blood related.’

“Looking back, I can never compare my experience with the saints as the hardships they went through were much harder, yet the testimony of loving each other during persecution is more prevalent. During those times, I could testify that our church became more united. To a certain extent, persecution points us to Christ and His love.”

Open Doors partners are supporting believers

The Lord also used Open Doors’ partners in China to provide Xiao Ai and her church with emotional, spiritual, and practical support which was a great encouragement to them. Frederick, an Open Doors partner, says: “We visit Xiao Ai on a regular basis to pray and study the Bible together. We also equip her and her team via persecution survival training. We want her to know that she is never alone in this. That we do lives together!”

"I experienced overflowing love from my church family." Xiao Ai

Open Doors local partners continue to equip the Chinese church as persecution worsens and surveillance increases. As well as persecution survival training, these partners distribute electronic Bibles and Christian literature, disciple believers who’ve converted from other faiths and train youth leaders to help grow the next generation of the church.

Across the country, courageous believers like Xiao Ai continue to stand strong in their faith, despite intensifying opposition. Please join them in praying for the future of the Chinese church. We may not be able to join these brothers and sisters in their secret house churches, but we can join them from where we are in powerful prayer.

Xiang's Story: Chinese Christian shares powerful story of persecution and hope

This story from China shows only too well the pressure faced by church leaders in China. Xiang En was a member of a large house church in China that was raided and shut down by the government. But the persecution the church experienced served to fuel the faith of its members.

*Name changed for security reasons

Please pray
  • For faithfulness and strength for all who face persecution for their faith, especially in prison
  • That the Lord will touch the hearts of the authorities and bring religious freedom to China
  • For the gospel to spread in China, and particularly that young people would hear the good news of Jesus and accept Him as their Saviour.
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