Rev Joseph Gu, the senior pastor of the highly influential Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, the largest protestant megachurch in China, has been taken into custody by government authorities.
According to Rev Bob Fu of ChinaAid, a US-based organisation that provides legal aid to Christians in China, the pastor, who is also chairman of the Chinese Christian Council of Zhejiang province, has been placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place”.
The latest development comes ten days after the unceremonious dismissal of Rev Gu from his church position. In a statement by Hangzhou’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council dated January 18, the move was to “promote the normal rotation of the principal Christians in charge of churches and sort out the interpersonal relationship between the province and the two municipal [Christian] organisations”.
Founded in 1866 by the British missionary Hudson Taylor, the Chongyi Church in its current incarnation sits in a 42 million yuan ($6.7 million) building that covers an area of 12,480 square metres and accommodates 5,500 people in a single service.
The auditorium at the Chongyi Church sits 5,500 and is packed to overflowing every Sunday.
The sprawling church campus is the fruition of a campaign by Rev Gu beginning in 2003 to raise funds from parishioners for a new building. Since then, under Gu’s leadership, the congregation has made a name for itself as the largest protestant church in the Chinese-speaking world, drawing over 10,000 people every Sunday to hear the impassioned preaching of the pentecostally-inclined pastor.
The church has also played host to a number of international evangelists, most notably Franklin Graham, son of the famed American preacher Billy Graham, who preached to a crowd of 12,000 in 2008; as well as Luis Palau whose rally drew thousands more in 2010.
Rising up through the ranks of the local TSPM, Rev Gu has had to tread a fine line between the spiritual needs of his own flock and the demands of state bureaucrats tasked to monitor religious associations.
In May 2015, following a wave of forced removals of crosses from church buildings across Zhejiang province, the Chongyi Church lashed out in a statement posted on its website, arguing that the removal of crosses “profanes Christianity’s most basic beliefs and tramples on the law and spirit of religious freedom”.
A subsequent statement by the Zhejiang TSPM saying it supported the move by the provincial government did not stop Rev Gu from becoming one of the most vehement opposers of the forced removal of crosses within TSPM hierarchy. It did not make him many friends.
In a statement they issued to their followers following Rev Gu’s dismissal, Gu and his wife wrote, “Chongyi Church is now faced with an unprecedented, heart-chilling time of testing, and we shall all have to overcome by the grace of God. Thank you for the concern you have shown to the both of us, we are both deeply touched by it. After a time of prayer, we have decided to temporarily cancel all ministerial activities to focus on intercession and seeking to understand what God wants for us.”
“We will walk with Chongyi Church, the Lord’s church, through all trials and tribulations,” they added. “No matter what happens in the future, you will see us serving at Chongyi, unless the Lord says otherwise. How we serve may change, but our heart for the Lord and for our flock will never change, because we are servants of God.”
The detention of Rev Gu comes against the backdrop of a wider crackdown of lawyers, dissidents and activists, that observers have described as alarming and unprecedented.
In Zhejiang, journalists seeking to cover the showdown between church and state as it unfolded in the province have been intimidated. At least 20 Christians, including pastors and deacons, are now sitting in jail, according to an estimate by ChinaAid.
One prominent case is that of the human rights lawyer Zhang Kai. Himself a Christian, Zhang wrote and distributed a “Cross Activists Handbook”, and provided legal advice for more than 100 churches fighting to keep the crosses on their buildings.