Members of China's Early Rain Covenant Church — one of the most influential house churches in the country — have vowed to continue meeting even after nearly 100 congregants were arrested in a government raid.
Church leader Li Yingqiang, who was among those taken into custody on Tuesday morning after evading police, posted a handwritten letter online urging church leaders to continue their pastoral work despite the crackdown.
"We are willing to have 200, 300 and even 500 of us locked up so that the whole world knows we are willing to be persecuted for our faith," he said in the letter written as he evaded police, the South China Morning Post reports.
He also called on church members to keep worshipping and meet outdoors if venues could not be rented. Concluding his letter, Li emphasized that the group would never give up on practicing its faith publicly.
More than 100 Christians from the church were snatched from their homes and streets across Chengdu, Sichuan province, in a crackdown that began on Sunday night. Among those detained were church pastor Wang Yi, his wife Jiang Rong, church leaders, members, and seminary students. During the raid, officials blocked church members' social media accounts and cut off the church's phone line.
Persecution watchdog group ChinaAid reported that three Christians taken by police, and then freed, were tortured.
"Three brothers and sisters who have been released told us that they were [tortured] by police at the police station today and even stepped on their feet. One of the brothers was tied to his hands and feet at a late night and was detained all day, and the leg was tortured in multiple ways, and the body was injured with multiple injuries. These evils are heinous," ChinaAid quotes a letter from church members as stating.
"A brother said the police didn't give him a sip of rice in 24 hours, didn't drink a sip, was deprived of rest time and was tied to the chair all night for only two or three hours," it added.
Enhui Cao, an Early Rain Church member who is also a teacher at the church's primary school, told ABC the raids are likely a result of Pastor Wang's public criticism of China's new regulations on religious affairs. Those regulations, which came into effect in February, required illegal "house" church's like Early Rain to apply for official registration.
"As far as faith is concerned, these new regulations are evil; as far as the constitution is concerned, they are illegal; as far as politics is concerned, they are foolish," Wang wrote earlier this year. "I intend to peacefully reject this regulation's legitimacy and implementation."
Dr. Bob Fu, ChinaAid's founder and president and a close friend of Pastor Wang, said the crackdown represents a "major escalation of religious persecution in China."
"Ironically this largest scale of arrests and clamp down on the international Human Rights Day shows [Chinese president) Xi's regime deliberately making itself the enemy of universal values, such as religious freedom for all," he said.
But despite such persecution, church members are in good spirits, church member Zhang Xinyue told reporters.
"We will not forsake assemblies. I was frightened at first when it happened but have soon overcome the feeling as we are prepared [for persecution]," she said.
In September, Beijing police closed the Zion Church, one of the largest Protestant house churches in China with more than 1,500 regular church-goers.