Zhang Chunlei, an elder of Love (Ren’ai) Reformed Church in Guiyang in China’s southwestern Guizhou province, has been officially arrested and accused of fraud after nearly seven weeks in detention.
Mr Zhang was first placed under administrative detention for ‘illegally operating as an association’ on 16 March 2021. His detention followed a police raid on a Christian retreat at a privately rented property in Guiyang earlier that day. Among the participants were some members of Love Reformed Church, an unregistered Protestant church forcibly shut down by the authorities in September 2018, months after China’s revised administrative regulations on religion came into force.
The raid has proved to be the beginning of a police operation against the church. At least five church members were administratively detained; a dozen family homes were searched, with documents, computers and phones confiscated; several members have been repeatedly summoned; and many more questioned by police.
On 1 April, Zhang Chunlei’s family received notification that he had been criminally detained ‘on suspicion of fraud’. His wife Yang Aiqing was served a criminal summons, also ‘on suspicion of fraud’, on 21 April. She was made to wear handcuffs and leg shackles while being interrogated before she was released 24 hours later.
Reports have emerged that the authorities formally arrested Mr Zhang ‘on suspicion of fraud’ on 1 May, the same day that China’s new administrative measures on religious clergy came into effect.
The Chinese authorities often target Christians with political or financial charges, including ‘inciting subversion of state power’, ‘divulging state secrets’, ‘illegal business operation’, and ‘fraud’.
In a prayer newsletter dated 1 May 2021, Love Reformed Church condemned the authorities’ continuous harassment and intimidation of its members as “serious trampling on the Christian faith.” The letter states, “We know that he [Elder Zhang] has been treated so unfairly because of his faith. The so-called charges against him for scamming brothers and sisters are simply unfounded; the ‘suspected fraud’ is outright absurd!”
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “Zhang Chunlei has spent over six weeks in detention on completely unfounded charges, and has now been formally arrested on fraud charges that are equally spurious. We call for his immediate and unconditional release, and for all charges against him to be dropped. We also urge the Chinese Communist Party to cease its crackdown on Love Reformed Church, as well as other religious groups across China. International engagement with China must include challenges to its flagrant violations of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, at every opportunity.”
Guiyang’s human rights situation came into focus in 2015, when dozens of government departments in Guizhou province started to join forces to crack down on Living Stone Church in the city. The authorities declared the church an ‘illegal organisation’, confiscated its property and funds, fined Pastor Su Tianfu and several other church members an additional 7 million yuan (approx. GBP 780,000), and arrested and sentenced its two pastors and three church members on baseless criminal charges. Hundreds of members were questioned and threatened with consequences such as dismissal, denial of schooling for their children, and disruption to normal business operations.
Separately, reports recently emerged that two preachers at Zion Church, Beijing, were detained on 28 April 2021 for ‘illegal assembly’. They were released on 6 May 2021, according to Weiquanwang, a Chinese human rights-related blog. Zion Church, one of the largest unregistered churches in Beijing, was also shut down by the authorities in September 2018.