Thursday, January 11, 2024

From "Vineyard” to Prison: The House of Joseph

A photo of Kunshan, Suzhou, where the House of Joseph has been known to operate. Image credit: Song Sangroov / CC BY 3.0 DEED 

Dui Hua continues to uncover information on Chinese religious groups following the release of its report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” in March 2022. Three new groups have been identified including the House of Joseph, or yuesejia (约瑟家) in Mandarin Chinese, Xinling Famen (心灵法门), and Corporate Christ (团体基督). 

The House of Joseph is an indigenous Christian group whose members are at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Founded in 1992 by Wei Zhuxiang (魏柱祥) as an offshoot of the Spirit Church, or linglingjiao (灵灵教), the House of Joseph is sometimes called “the third generation” of the True Jesus Church (真耶稣教会) from which the Spirit Church was splintered in 1986. According to Chinese government sources, Wei predicted an apocalypse in 2000 and said that conversion to the House of Joseph was the only way to salvation. He allegedly “distorted” the Bible by proclaiming himself Joseph, son of Jesus. He claimed that the holy spirit had descended on him and his wife, and the couple became the new god after they united as one. He also stated that he was reincarnated as a shepherd in the earthly world in search of “another flock of sheep.” His goal is to launch an evangelizing mission which he calls “the 6,000-Year Project of the God.”  

Unorthodox religious groups often stand accused of illegally amassing a fortune from superstitious believers through “indoctrination” and “mind control.” The House of Joseph is no exception. The church allegedly asks adherents for donations to repent their sins, and it arranges marriages for male adherents who pay a fee from 5,000-20,000 yuan. Following Wei’s unfulfilled apocalyptic prophecy in 2000, Wei started calling on believers to join settlements or communities that he termed “vineyards” and described as swathes of paradise on earth. Believers were admitted after they paid a fee of 2,000 yuan. Chinese government sources reveal that he used the money to create economic entities in garment processing, engineering construction, planting and breeding, catering services, and trading. Violators of his church rules would be ordered to fast, suspended from employment, and even dismissed from his “vineyards.” 

Wei once claimed that his church had as many as 100,000 members. However, Chinese government sources suggest that the group only has a limited reach in China, with over 1,000 devoted members mostly in Huai’an and Kunshan (in Jiangsu Province), and Shanghai. It is unclear when the Chinese government started labelling the House of Joseph an “evil cult,” but a court judgment Dui Hua uncovered states that Wei was among the 12 leading members detained amid a crackdown in 2005. In 2006, the Kunshan City People’s Court convicted Wei of fraud and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison. Wei was released from prison in April 2014. His wife was also sentenced in the same case, but information about the criminal punishment she received is not available. 

Footage of a baptism conducted by the True Jesus Church, which the House of Joseph is thought to have splintered from. Image credit: True Jesus Church live stream 

Re-Indicted in 2020 

Wei continued to develop his church after he was released from prison. In May 2020, Wei was re-arrested in Suqian, Jiangsu, alongside another leading member Wang Shoucai (王守财) for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Six months later, Wei and Wang were among the 17 House of Joseph members who were indicted for violating Article 300. The procuratorate accused them of “disseminating propaganda materials all over the country to promote the cultic ideology of the House of Joseph, collecting donations from believers, and illegally amassing a fortune” since 2017. 

Dui Hua has not been unable to find a court judgment concerning this case. However, given China’s high conviction rates and that Wei reoffended, it is highly likely that Wei received a lengthy prison sentence and is serving a second prison stint in Jiangsu. 

Suqian, Jiangsu, where the House of Joseph leader Wei was arrested after serving his prison sentence. Image credit: Invercargill City Council 

Other Convictions 

    I.    Zhang X 

Besides Wei, Dui Hua found that two other House of Joseph members were convicted prior to his re-indictment in 2020. In the first case, Wei’s nephew surnamed Zhang received a three-year suspended sentence for violating Article 300 in December 2015. Zhang, a farmer, was initially placed under residential surveillance in March 2012. That same month, he was released on bail pending further investigation. He was indicted three years later, in April 2015. The following month, he was released on bail again until the Huaiyin District People’s Court resumed the trial on September 17, 2015. 

Zhang converted to the House of Joseph in 2001 and was appointed by Wei as the head of a Kunshan-based “vineyard” in 2011 while Wei was serving his 10 years and six months’ prison sentence. The court judgment states that Zhang “actively obeyed and earnestly carried out Wei’s orders through letters and verbal messages from prison.” Wei made another prediction of cataclysm which would take place on November 16, 2011 following a nuclear war. Adherents were told that they must seek refuge from three arks (like those used by Noah in religious texts), one of which was in Tibet. Individuals would be denied refuge unless they had been baptized by the House of Joseph by September 12, 2011. Zhang disseminated Wei’s prophecy and continued to help Wei to exert indirect control of church members. 

In preparation for the impending cataclysm, Zhang sold his Jiangsu vineyards and arranged for over a thousand church members to relocate to Xinjiang and Tibet where he intended to re-establish his organizational branch. In Xinjiang, Zhang organized about 60 missionaries to conduct overseas evangelization in Iran and Thailand. Zhang ordered one of the teams to travel to Iran for a religious exchange and requested that church members print 4,000 leaflets with Farsi translations of the church doctrines. In Tibet, Zhang formed four other teams of missionaries to preach domestically. All their activities were funded directly by the House of Joseph. 

In November 2011, one of the missionaries Zhang dispatched to China’s northeast was detained. Foreseeing an imminent risk of police investigation, Zhang deleted all correspondences with the missionary and dismissed all church members who had relocated to Xinjiang and Tibet. Before Zhang was able to transfer out the church funds, police seized over 54 million yuan, 2,100 grams of gold, and an apartment owned by the church in Jiangsu.  

Zhang’s punishment was lenient  because he turned himself in and disbanded his organizational branch in 2011. During the court trial, he claimed to have recanted his religious beliefs by questioning Wei’s unfulfilled prophecy concerning the nuclear war. He also pledged to not join any cult activities. Zhang’s three-year suspended sentence ended in December 2018. 

An image of Huai’an, one of the locations where the House of Joseph has been based. Image credit: Huai’an Economic and Technological Development Zone 

    II.    Chen X 

The House of Joseph continued to operate despite suffering a major blow after Zhang shuttered his Tibet and Xinjiang organizational branches. A court judgment Dui Hua acquired indicated another Jiangsu farmer surnamed Chen was sentenced to three years in prison on October 15, 2015, also for violating Article 300. Chen organized home gatherings with 15 other members despite “knowing full well that the church had been banned by relevant authorities” since February 10, 2010.  

Unlike Zhang, Chen does not appear to have been in close contact with Wei. Chen said all the 16 church members who took part in the home gatherings were God’s descendants and possessed powers to cure sicknesses and cast out demons. The judgment made no mention of Wei’s apocalyptic prediction in 2011. Chen was accused of printing 2,000 leaflets to spread claims that he possessed healing powers and had successfully cured more than 500 patients. Chen is believed to have been released from prison on December 10, 2017, assuming that he did not receive either sentence reduction or sentence extension. 

Dui Hua has been unable to find additional information about the House of Joseph beyond what is stated in the 2020 indictment and the two aforementioned court judgments. China’s Anti-Cult Association, which disseminates propaganda about the harmful nature of evil cults, is not known to have published a single article about the church. The House of Joseph has officially been designated as harmful on the grounds that it is both fraudulent and superstitious. However, as with many of the non-violent unorthodox religious groups in China, it is unclear if this opposition to the group is meant to protect the Chinese people from harmful superstition, or if it is another way to protect the Chinese government from a grassroots group with organizational capacity.