"Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination." --- Article 36, Constitution of the People's Republic of China

Nice words, but sadly only that. Just yesterday, 40 members of a large Chinese house church were detained while holding an Easter service. Another 500 were placed under house arrest. Yesterday's actions were only the latest outrage against Chinese Christians by their government; as the Voice of America reports:

"In the past five years, every year, the degree of persecution increased, from the perspective of how many church's were persecuted, how many Christians were arrested, sentenced, abused or tortured. So it's a national phenomenon; it's a common phenomenon. Every year is like this," he said. Members of the Shouwang Church say more than 500 members of the congregation were also put under house arrest. It's unclear, however, whether any of those detained or under house arrest will face formal charges. Mark Shan says the crackdown is not limited to Beijing. "From Henan, Shandong province this month, even Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, the crackdown has never stopped and it is more serious than last year," he said.

This news comes as no real surprise. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that, "In China, weve seen negative trends that are appearing to worsen in the first part of 2011."

Why? Perhaps the story is in the numbers:

According to the Pew Research Center, between 50 million and 70 million Chinese worship in house churches, and more than 25 million worship in state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant churches. The Communist Party, by comparison, has around 60 million members.

If the Chinese government believes it can quell faith in Jesus through a public crackdown, they would do well to contemplate what historian Herbert Schlossberg and journalist Marvin Olasky have called "the fragrance of oppression." Persecution was the lot of the early church - the New Testament is full of accounts of the oppression of the early church and encouragements to both anticipate it and stand firm through it. The early believers, brutalized in every way, would not bend or break. In the words of Paul to the church at Corinth, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (II Corinthians 4:8-10).

The life of Jesus is manifest in a suffering church, just as a rose is most aromatic as it is crushed to the ground. If the Chinese leadership believes that it can crush the growing church in its midst by attacking it, it is pursuing a strategy that has never worked. To the contrary, in the economy of God's kingdom, persecution leads to purity and beauty, which together lead to faith in the One Who sustains - to the wonder of a watching world - those who remain faithful to Him in the midst of their pain.

The Chinese pastor Yuan (Allen) Xiangchen was first imprisoned by the Communist Chinese in 1958 for preaching the Gospel. Here's what he said about his experience:

During those years in prison my wife suffered untold hardships in bringing up the children. I was sent to near the Russian border doing farm work, growing rice. Wang Ming Dao [a fellow pastor also sentenced to the camp] and I thought we would die martyrs there ... In the labour camp it was very cold ... food was bad, and the work was hard, but in 22 years I never once got sick. I was thin and wore glasses, but I came back alive; many did not. I also had no Bible for the 22 years and there were no other Protestant Christians there. I met only four Catholic priests. They were in the same situation I was in; they refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Pastor Yuan finally was released in 1979. He immediately went back to preaching the Gospel.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who with his peers evidently is alarmed by the growth of Christianity in his country, might consider Pastor Yuan's example - and change his policy of oppression. It should also be our prayer that President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and longtime defenders of the persecuted like U.S. Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chris Smith (R-NJ), and Trent Franks (R-AZ) will take whatever public or private steps necessary to work to protect Christian believers who live so bravely behind the Bamboo Curtain.

For up-to-the-minute reports on Christian persecution in China, go to www.chinaaid.org or www.persecution.org.