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World: Chinese lawyer’s ‘confession’ chills church

Friday, March 11, 2016

By June Cheng
Posted March 10, 2016, 04:45 p.m.

■ Few Christians want to speak out after the Chinese government imprisoned an attorney who tried to help them

Christians in China felt a piercing chill last month as the government paraded a detained Christian human rights lawyer on state television, where he denounced his friends abroad and his work defending pastors who had their crosses torn from their churches.

The responses from the Christian community over Zhang Kai’s “confession” have varied. In the same pre-taped program, a couple Wenzhou pastors accused Zhang, 36, of receiving high consultation fees, supporting the narrative that Zhang was an opportunist seeking international fame and fortune. A few leading pastors spoke out in support of the lawyer, claiming his innocence and blaming the government for deliberately painting him as a traitor. But most pastors have kept quiet, fearful any connection with Zhang could jeopardize their own standing with the government.

Zhang, who professed Christ in 2003, started focusing his legal career on public interest and rights defense in 2006. He defended house churches, rural rights activists, victims of tainted powdered milk, and a migrant laborer who was mistreated and killed by railway officials. After the government began tearing down crosses from churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Zhang relocated to the area to defend the churches, arguing the demolitions were illegal. So far, more than 1,800 churches have had their crosses stripped from atop their buildings.

On Aug. 25, 2015, a day before Zhang and two assistants planned to meet with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, police scrambled over the walls of Xialing Church. For six months, Zhang was kept in secretive detention, unable to communicate with family or friends, until his haggard face appeared on state television. Fellow lawyer Wang Xiaping said he looked as though he had lost about a third of his weight. As the six-month “residential surveillance” ended, he was transferred to criminal detention on suspicion of “disturbing public order” and “endangering state secrets,” according to Radio Free Asia.

The pre-taped video showed images of church members peacefully protesting and painted Zhang as a profiteering lawyer trying to amass money and esteem while disturbing social order. In what seemed to be a scripted confession, he admitted to connections with Bob Fu of U.S.-based China Aid as well as Prof.Yang Fenggang, director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society. He said China Aid claims to defend religious liberties when, in actuality, it works to smear the Chinese government and its human-rights record.

“I also warn those so-called human rights lawyers to take me as a warning and not collude with foreigners, take money from foreign organizations, or be engaged in activities that break the law or harm national security and interests,” Zhang said in the confession.

In a statement, Purdue’s Yang called on the Wenzhou authorities to release Zhang, calling him a friend and “one of the most courageous lawyers defending Christian churches in Wenzhou.” He noted that the “evidence” shown on the program was all dated before 2013, while Zhang didn’t started working in Wenzhou until August 2014.

Fu, the other “overseas force” mentioned on the tape, also denounced the forced confession and maintained Zhang’s innocence. He noted the lawyer, who has a young daughter, must be under great duress as he and Zhang “had made a pre-arranged agreement before his imprisonment that he would never compromise nor betray us in any way, unless he faces insurmountable hardship.” Fu added: “We are always proud of you, and we love you, dear brother Zhang Kai. Keep up a good spirit, and may the comfort of the Holy Spirit be with you and heal you after you are free from physical bondage.”

News of Zhang Kai’s confession spread quickly through Chinese social media, raising discussions among Christians, some questioning whether he actually had impure motives for defending the churches, others wondering how he could compromise, and still others defending Zhang.

One oft-shared post (which has since been taken down by authorities) came from Pastor Jin Tianming, the lead pastor of Shouwang Church in Beijing, who has been under house arrest for the past four years. Jin called on believers to continue praying for Zhang, and refuted doubts that the confession planted in their minds. Lawyers needed to be paid for the professional services, he wrote, especially since their entire career and personal freedoms are on the line.

As for the overseas contacts, Jin noted “Is it a crime to contact those overseas or be funded by those overseas? May the Lord free us from such political hypersensitivity. For if our heart is so firmly under the jurisdiction of the state and the political system, will there be humanitarian aid that crosses borders? How can we assume the great commission of the Lord to preach the gospel to the people on the earth and to ‘make disciples of all nations?’”

Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu also posted a message about his good friend: “What physical and spiritual torment can annihilate the will of a man who believes in God? What Brother Zhang Kai was eventually unable to bear, I don’t imagine I’d be able to bear half of.” He went on to speak out against the Wenzhou churches that Zhang had sacrificed his freedom for, claiming the lack of leadership in those areas forced the lawyer to “stand on the front lines of the church’s spiritual battle.”

Wang wrote that he, too, had committed all the “crimes” of which Zhang had been accused—he had met with the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, he attended the same conferences abroad. He also opposed the cross demolitions. He ended the letter by saying that under the government’s logic, he, too, should be prosecuted and cheekily wrote out his Chinese identification number.

Thirty-six Chinese pastors signed a letter condemning the government’s use of forced confessions and said Zhang was a devout Christian who used his legal expertise to help the church over the years. Yet most church leaders have stayed silent on the matter, afraid of what standing up for Zhang could mean for themselves and their churches. Jason Zheng, a 22-year-old at Wang’s church who is originally from Wenzhou, said when he spoke with leaders of house churches in Wenzhou, they told him they would not actively speak out against the government’s actions or political issues. Rather, they know in their hearts where they stand, and if the officials come for them, they will resist joining the ranks of government-sanctioned churches. Zheng responded: “But if you don’t speak out, then your parishioners have no way of getting correct teaching from you. Once persecution comes, they won’t know how to respond to those problems.”

Zheng has faced his own run-in with authorities: Last summer, Zhejiang officials arrived at Zheng’s door after pictures of the Wenzhou cross demolitions he posted from his social media account went viral. They shut down his account and told him to stop, yet Zheng said he would keep posting things in accordance with his faith. Recently, the lawyer Zhang’s imprisonment and confession caused the college-aged young man to consider what he would do in such a situation.

“I think that, like Pastor Wang Yi said, I couldn’t handle half of what he went through,” Zheng told me over a Starbucks coffee. “But I hope that if it were to happened to me, I would be able to firmly hold fast to my faith and not compromise.”

China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985

"Bob Fu has dedicated his life to bringing freedom of religion to the Chinese people. His story is a testimony to the power of faith and an inspiration to people struggling to break free from oppression."
—Mrs. Laura Bush

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