New York Times International
The New York Times

March 3, 2002

China Punishes a Christian Home for the Aged

By ERIK ECKHOLM

BEIJING, March 2 Alarmed by unauthorized church services, officials in a northern suburb of Beijing have cut off the electricity for a small Christian-run home for the aged and are threatening to shut off the water supply unless the home is disbanded.

Chen Zhongxin, who is 70 and an informal Protestant pastor, runs the charitable home in Hai Chingluo village north of Beijing together with his wife. They take care of nine men and women in their 80's and 90's as well as a blind man and a disabled man, Mr. Chen said in a telephone interview.

Care of the infirm elderly is a soaring problem in China, and Mr. Chen said that he and his wife had established the home in April 1999 to care for people in need. He said he had regularly held private Christian services for the residents in the past and had not had any problems.

The home's troubles began on Feb. 21, the same day that President Bush arrived in Beijing for a two-day visit, when Mr. Chen tried to hold a Christian "thanksgiving" celebration, as he described it, under a tent outside the home. More than 40 people attended, he said, including neighbors and migrant workers who had heard by word of mouth about the planned services.

Although religious activities outside China's official church are illegal, "house church" services like Mr. Chen's are widespread sometimes tolerated and sometimes not. The police raided Mr. Chen's gathering on Feb. 21 and detained the participants for 50 hours, releasing them after President Bush had departed.

This week, the police fined the village more than $6,000, a heavy sum for such a village, for permitting the unapproved gathering and the unlicensed group home. Village officials say the group must leave and, after turning off the power on Friday, also threatened to turn off the water.

"We've been in this village for almost three years and our relations with the villagers had always been fine," Mr. Chen said on Friday. "They could see the good work we've been doing with old people. Now, after the detentions, the villagers are confused," he said. "When the electrician came to cut off the power, he said he had to do it because we were Falun Gong," Mr. Chen said, referring to the non-Christian spiritual movement, which has been outlawed as a cult.

Mr. Chen and his wife used to live in the central province of Henan, in an area that is rife with house churches, but they left in 1995 after suffering police harassment, he said. For several years, they worked at another home for the elderly to the west of Beijing that is run by an 80- year-old Christian doctor, and then in 1999 they decided to form their own small home.

Mr. Chen said he was not doctrinaire about his religion. "We have our house church, but we also go to the services in the big, official church," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're one big family and we shouldn't dwell on divisions."

Mr. Chen was fearful about the weeks ahead. "We certainly can't move," he said. "Where will the old people go? Who will look after them?"

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company