"China is now the world's #1 publisher of Bibles, even though private printing and distribution of bibles and underground house churches remain illegal, and many Chinese Christians, priests and pastors remain jailed for their faith."
Cartoon by Dan Lacey
Arrest of Christian bookseller focuses attention on China
article from 12/13/2007 10:26 PM
"By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
BEIJING — The owner of a Christian bookstore here, held in secret detention since Nov. 28, broke no laws and sold only legally sanctioned religious material, his wife says.
Businessman Shi Weihan was arrested because of his faith and refusal to register their unapproved "house church" with authorities, says Zhang Jing, 37.
Shi's case has attracted international attention and drawn condemnation from overseas Christian groups. His arrest comes as the Chinese government is struggling to convince critics that it has expanded religious freedom and tolerance.
China is officially atheist and restricts religious practice to state-sanctioned churches and places of worship regulated by authorities. The government, military and ruling Communist Party discourage officeholders and members from practicing any faith.
In September, though, the party made a historic concession to the fast-growing church movement by saying that "religious believers should be mobilized to make a positive contribution to society."
Last Saturday, the government announced that the country's only authorized Christian publisher had reached a milestone, printing its 50 millionth bible. At a ceremony marking the occasion, Ye Xiaowen, the top religious affairs official, said China "respects and protects religious freedom," according to reports in state-run media.
Each year, Chinese police arrest thousands of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others affiliated with unsanctioned religious groups. Last month, government officials were forced to deny reports that bibles would be banned from the Olympic Village at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
The U.S. State Department calls China a "country of particular concern" for violations of religious freedom against Protestants, Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned as an "evil cult" in 1999.
Shi's case has put China's record in the spotlight again, just months before the Summer Olympics. The case also is being watched by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing because Shi and Zhang have a 7-year-old daughter who was born in the USA and is a U.S. citizen.
Shi opened the Holy Spirit Bookstore in a north Beijing office tower in March 2006. The businessman, who also runs a travel agency, converted to Christianity more than a decade ago and began an informal "house church" called the Antioch Eternal Life Church.
Each Sunday, 20 to 30 worshipers meet in a room next to the store, Zhang says.
"The government only wants people to worship in registered churches, but we prefer the freedom and comfort of our own place. If we register, the government would supervise us and demand reports on speakers and all attendees," she says.
Police confiscated more than 1,000 books and other religious literature even though "everything we sell is copyrighted and has a legal bar code" to indicate that it is state-approved, Zhang says.
California businessman Ray Sharpe, a friend of Shi's and a onetime China resident, calls the arrest "shocking but not unusual."
Cai Zhuohua, a Christian pastor who served three years in prison for printing and distributing bibles, says membership in China's illegal churches dwarfs that of legally approved churches.
"The government is afraid of the fast growth of house churches," Cai says. "So many house churches had my bibles that the authorities said I was a threat to national security and kept asking if there was a foreign organization behind me."
Zhang says she remains fearful that she will be arrested. She says police have refused to allow her to visit Shi or deliver him medicine he needs to control diabetes and high blood pressure.
Cai says Shi "will suffer" at the Haidian detention center northwest of Beijing, where Cai spent a year and was held in a cell with 27 other prisoners. "The cells are very cold and crowded," he says. "I was not allowed to read the bible, even though my relatives tried to send copies inside. Con men and thieves were allowed to leave prison early, but because of my religion I had to serve my full term."
This week, shoppers continued to visit Shi's bookstore, rummaging through picture frames, crosses and other goods left behind after the police raid.
One customer, Hannah Zhang, browsed for gifts for Christmas, a holiday that she said is arousing curiosity among the Chinese.
"People are looking for more meaning in their lives," she said. "They see Christmas decorations everywhere and don't know what it means, (wondering), 'Is it Santa Claus's birthday?' Now, more are interested and want to find out about Christmas."