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Compass Direct (04/05/06) – A major Chinese house church leader is scheduled for a potentially decisive court hearing tomorrow (April 6) after more than 16 months in police custody.

Zhang Rongliang, 55, was arrested by Henan police without charges on December 1, 2004. Only months later was he charged with “attaining a passport through cheating” and with “illegal border crossing.”

Chinese authorities often deny passports to well-known house church leaders. Previously Zhang had been detained five times and spent a total of 12 years in prison for his religious activities.

“This will be his third hearing,” said a co-worker who asked to remain anonymous. “This time I hope the court can make an independent decision based on truth and justice.”

Zhang, who has suffered from diabetes for six years and high blood pressure for four years, has spent most of his time in the hospital since December 19, 2005, but officials believe he is well enough to attend the hearing.

Zhang is a key leader of the China for Christ house church movement, formerly known as Fangcheng but renamed by Zhang in October 2004. During a court hearing in 2005, Zhang said the movement was now 10 million strong, though other estimates put the number at 1 million.

Zhang also co-authored a joint house church “Confession of Faith,” written in 1999, to plead for clemency during a widespread government crackdown against “cult” movements.

Following his arrest, authorities confiscated Christian DVDs and other materials from Zhang’s house that allegedly linked him with foreign Christians. Contact with foreign co-religionists can constitute illegal activity in China .

Chained to Hospital Bed

A few of Zhang’s relatives and church members were allowed to attend two court hearings in the People’s Court of Xinmi city on June 6 and August 2, 2005.

Xu Zhijun, the chief judge at these hearings, later told Zhang’s family that he had no personal grudge against Zhang and that he would judge his case fairly according to the law. But four months later, in December 2005, officials suddenly transferred Zhang to a prison in Zhongmu city, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from Xinmi.

By that time, Zhang had been held in police custody for 12 months. Although a verdict had not yet been issued, he had already served the maximum sentence for anyone found guilty of using a false passport.

According to one government official sympathetic to the plight of house church members, the Zhengzhou City Political and Legal Committee was displeased with an impending decision by the People’s Court of Xinmi to dismiss all charges and release Zhang. The Zhengzhou committee therefore asked the Zhongmu city court to re-examine the case.

Officials in Zhongmu refused to accept Zhang, however, fearing he might die in their custody as a result of serious health problems. Zhang was then admitted to the Xinmi city People’s Hospital on December 19, 2005, where he stayed until January 23. One witness reported seeing Zhang handcuffed and chained to his hospital bed.

Later Zhang was transferred to a Zhongmu City hospital, where he spent most of February and March. Doctors have advised him to remain there for treatment.

Hospital staff have confirmed the diabetes and high blood pressure and diagnosed four other chronic health problems.

“I am really concerned about his health,” said Zhang’s wife, Chen Hongxian, in a recent interview. “This is so unfair. Why are we house church Christians being treated like second-class citizens in our own country?”

Passport Issue

Chinese house church historian Zhang Yinan, released from prison on September 2005, feels strongly about the passport issue.

Zhang Yinan was arrested on September 26, 2003 and imprisoned for two years on charges of “attempting to subvert the national government” for his efforts to document the condition of Chinese house churches. He applied for a passport earlier this year, after friends in the United States invited him to attend the 56th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington , D.C.

Authorities knew of the invitation and rejected his application. An estimated 50 to 60 policemen took turns guarding his apartment in Henan for three weeks, from the time of his application until February 1, the day before the prayer meeting began.

“Freedom of religion includes the freedom to travel and fellowship with Christians worldwide,” Zhang Yinan said. “As citizens of the People’s Republic of China , every Christian has the right to have a passport to travel freely abroad.”

He noted that the government grants passports to Chinese Muslims for pilgrimages to Mecca but denies them to many house church leaders.

Civil authorities have rejected passport applications from several other top leaders of the China for Christ house church movement.

One of them is Han Yongqin, a co-worker of imprisoned pastor Zhang Rongliang since the 1980s. A few months ago, when her daughter applied for a passport for overseas study, the police asked her to bring her mother in for questioning.

“I just don’t understand the logic here,” said Han. “Pastor Zhang and I have been on the blacklist for many years. But why should the police pick on our children?”

Chinese house church leaders said there appeared to be no channel for open dialogue with the government on this issue.

As for Zhang, his wife Chen hopes the hearing on Thursday will bring a positive resolution.

“I hope my husband can come home soon, so that I can take good care of his health,” she said.