Nettleton says the sentencing of Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church highlights the Communist Party’s fear of Christianity. His sentence, nine years in prison, is the longest for an ethnic Chinese Christian in several years.
“The Communist Party is directly threatened by that message,” Nettleton says. “They are directly threatened by people who say following Christ is the way to achieve salvation.”
Nettleton points out a reason for this fear. “The church teaches salvation comes not having anything to do with the Communist Party. Salvation comes through the blood of Christ, and through committing our lives to Christ, and following after him.” This difference is creating a political rift that the government is trying to squash by going after large, prominent churches.
“The communist government is saying, ‘We will control the church,’ ” Nettleton says, noting that the rise in persecution towards Christians in the country corresponds with the explosive growth of Christianity.
Wang Yi personifies this rift, often writing and speaking on political issues. He criticized the Chinese government for practicing forced abortions and for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He even criticized China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, for his constant consolidation of power.
In addition to the subversion of state power, Wang Yi was sentenced for illegal business operations: his church is unregistered with the government and had over 500 members in 2018.
And Early Rain Covenant is far from the only large church in China. Estimates of the Christian population in China vary. The New York Times reports 60 million while Nettleton believes it could be 120 million. By comparison, the Communist party in China currently has just over 90 million members. “The party officials just look at the math,” Nettleton said, “And say, ‘Wait a minute, if we’re going to stay in power, we need to do something about this growth.’”
Wang Yi’s arrest is concurrent with China’s mass imprisoning of Muslims in re-education camps. According to TIME, these camps, located in the western province of Xinjiang, hold Muslims for the purpose of political indoctrination. People in the camps are held to a rigid schedule and sometimes tortured.
In addition, the government passed new laws in 2017 limiting religious freedoms and sharply restricting any organizations not run by the government.
Wang Yi’s long sentence was given by a secretive court, which no family member was allowed to attend, Nettleton said. His lawyers were also not involved, as he was assigned lawyers by the government. An elder of the church, Qin Defu, has already been sentenced to four years in prison.
Nettleton believes Christians in the West should pray for the Christians in China, especially Wang Yi’s wife, Jiang Rong, and their son. Many of his church members were arrested along with him, though most have since been released.
Nettleton also encouraged Christians to use their political privileges. China and the United States are in talks about trade, but Nettleton believes religious freedom should be included in those talks.
Header image depicts the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo obtained via Wikimedia Commons.