When I obey the Lord, I still have joy and hope

Li Jie and wife Li Shanshan with their children.(Photo: Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

'When I obey the Lord, I still have joy and hope. If I compromise to get out of here, then the suffering I experience would only lead to despair.'

Preacher Li Jie and his wife Li Shanshan were among the earliest members of Covenant Home ("Shengyue Jiayuan") Church which was founded in early 2018, the same year that Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs came into force and the Chinese government began a sweeping crackdown on unregistered 'house' churches like Covenant Home which continues to date.

It would be a few years before the Lis would experience this crackdown first-hand; in January 2021 – on one of the coldest days of winter – the couple and their two young sons were evicted from their home after local police pressured their landlady to do so. The reason? Li Jie had added his name to a statement signed by over 400 Chinese pastors and church leaders calling on the government to respect the basic freedoms and human rights of religious citizens.

Despite such cruel treatment, Covenant Home Church defied the pressure and insisted on operating as a faith community. Based in Linfen in northern China's Shanxi Province – a region of rich Christian history – the church continued to organise family-friendly events during the school summer holidays to cater to the large number of children in its congregation.

It was during one such event however that everything changed for Covenant Home Church, and once again especially for the Lis.

A holiday interrupted

On 19 August 2022 – the second day of the church's summer retreat at a national park a two-hour drive from Linfen - police stormed a gathering of approximately 70 church members, including around 40 children, who were enjoying some family games.

Li Jie was placed in handcuffs and pinned to the ground, as was another preacher Han Xiaodong, as questions of 'who are you?' and 'what are you doing?' were ignored by officers who proceeded to confiscate the phones and laptops of all those gathered, demanding passwords from their owners and ordering everyone to keep their hands on tables.

The entire group was placed into buses and police cars to take them back to Linfen, where they were held and interrogated in separate venues overnight.

Church members later reported that they were asked questions that were specifically designed to incriminate Li, with the police pressuring them to say that Li was the main organiser of the church and that they had donated money to him.

While most were released the next day, Li Jie, Li Shanshan and Han Xiaodong were held and interrogated for four days before all three were placed in a form of secret detention known as Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL) on 23 August. A letter from Li Shanshan to Li Jie, written on 9 March 2023, the tenth anniversary of their marriage, later described how the trio were forced to sit in a corridor and subjected to sleep deprivation for three days.

A family torn apart

The Lis and Han were all held until 6 September 2022, upon which Li Shanshan was released on bail and finally returned home to look after their two sons.

That was the last time she saw her husband.

Li Jie and Han were transferred to the Yaodu District Detention Centre, and both were formally arrested in September. Both preachers refused to confess to the completely unfounded allegations of 'fraud' that the authorities had made against them, prompting the police to resort to the relentless harassment of members of Covenant Home Church to pressure them to incriminate their leaders.

Church members were phoned, visited and summoned for questioning for months, and in some case the police even approached their employers and relatives in an effort to pressure them to 'co-operate'.

In one particularly shocking incident, another church member Wang Qiang was violently arrested on 1 November 2022 and subsequently tortured because he refused to give false evidence against Li and Han. He has since joined the two of them in the Yaodu District Detention Centre, separated from his wife, young daughter and a son he has yet to meet for almost a year and a half now.

A concerning trend

Li, Han and Wang were all formally charged with 'fraud' in June 2023, with public prosecutors in Linfen accusing them of forming a criminal 'clique' and obtaining 'illegal income' amounting to 780,000 yuan (approximately £85,000 GBP). All three are still awaiting trial.

This has become far too common in China in recent years. Many church leaders who signed the same declaration as Li Jie back in 2018 have been similarly convicted on charges of 'fraud' or 'illegal business operations'.

The intention of such efforts is not only to justify the detention or imprisonment of religious leaders, but also to undermine their reputation and credibility. But Li Jie and many like him have not lost hope; as is clear from the quote at the top of this article – shared via his lawyer with whom he has at least been able to meet now – Li remains committed to the truth that he is innocent of the charges levelled against him.

The international community in turn must honour this commitment by refusing to accept China's lies about Li and the countless others like him, and indeed by holding the Chinese Communist Party to account for its gross mistreatment of house churches and other religion or belief communities that do not conform to its policy of complete and total control over all aspects of society.