30 January 2016 – One of the most prominent Protestant figures in China, the Rev. Gu Yuese, has been detained, along with his wife, and held incommunicado as part of what Chinese evangelical leaders say is a broad official crackdown in China on what is described as harmful “foreign influences.”
State religious authorities in the city of Hangzhou confirmed that Rev. Gu was undergoing a criminal investigation.
Two other prominent Chinese Protestant leaders strongly decried the move by authorities, including Chen Yilu, head of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the official academy in China for pastoral training among Protestants.
“What kind of church system does our Chinese church have?”, Mr. Chen asked on social media, criticizing state tampering with the governance of the local church.
Gu, also known as Joseph Gu, is both head of China’s largest Protestant evangelical congregation, the Chongyi church in Hangzhou, China’s first megachurch — and he sits on China’s national Standing Committee for religious authority.
Gu for years had a reputation as a friendly and often conciliatory face for the Protestant church in China. He received foreign delegations and was a reassuring voice for religious freedom in a country ruled by a Communist party. Franklin Graham, son of the prominent American pastor Rev. Billy Graham, preached at his Chongyi church, which numbers some 10,000 adherents.
But moves to discipline Mr. Gu began to take shape, according to members of his church, after he publicly opposed a new law last spring to tear down church crosses in Zhejiang Province on China’s eastern coast. An estimated 1,800 crosses have been forcibly removed in Zhejiang, whose city Wenzhou is often called “China’s Jerusalem” for its large evangelical population.
As Christianity, especially evangelicalism, has grown swiftly in China, it has caused consternation among state authorities as sanctioning a soft but powerful form of authority and loyalty outside the party. By some estimates there are as many or more Christians in China today as there are Communist party members, who number some 83 million.
The cross removal campaign in Zhejiang was widely seen there as a put down and curbing of Christian enthusiasm and identity. Yet the campaign transgressed an invisible line among believers as it took aim mainly at official Protestant churches, sanctioned by the state, rather than at the proliferation of unofficial “home churches” where worship is freer from state oversight. Members of the official Protestant church generally see themselves as more patriotic and rule-abiding.
Last week Gu was removed as chief pastor at Chongyi church by a state-run religious body in Hangzhou, causing shock among the Christian community there and more largely in China.
In a communication to his congregation at the time, Gu warned that further actions may be taken, but that he and his wife, also a pastor at the church, would stay.
“Dear family members,” he wrote, “There is a rare freezing cold coming soon to Hangzhou city. Please take care and be sure to rely on Grace … Chongyi Church is also facing an unprecedented situation.”
Chongyi is considered the largest official Protestant church in China.