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Pastor aims to 'bother' China over abuses

He vandalized Beijing hotel rooms and now plans to turn himself in to draw attention to human rights breaches.

August 23, 2008|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The last time Eddie Perez Romero was seen in public, Aug. 7, he vandalized two upscale hotel rooms in Beijing as part of what the longtime pastor of a La Puente church described as a protest against China's human rights abuses.

Then Romero is believed to have gone into hiding in a rural area outside Beijing -- a self-imposed exile that the decorated Vietnam War veteran plans to end Sunday by turning himself in to Chinese authorities after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

In the meantime, the 58-year-old part-time college philosophy professor continues to send brief digital messages -- he identifies himself as "imagadfly" -- that call upon Beijing to end human rights abuses, free political prisoners and grant religious freedom to Christians.

"He's there to be a nuisance, to literally bother the Chinese government over its human rights abuses," said Sarah Yetter, who last saw her father in July before he boarded a flight at LAX. "He's literally saying that 'I'm not big, but I'm going to bother you.' "

Many in Romero's circle knew he was going to China to mount a protest, including Steve Runnebohm, dean of humanities and social sciences at Mt. San Antonio College, where Romero has taught for nearly a decade.

"He didn't say what he intended to do," Runnebohm said. "And I'm very curious to learn what the final act will be."

Runnebohm said he has assigned another professor to the two philosophy classes that Romero, who has a master's degree in theology, had been scheduled to teach beginning Monday.

He is awaiting the outcome of any legal proceedings before determining if Romero will be invited back.

Those who know Romero say he was outraged in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the Olympics to Beijing.

Almost immediately, family members and associates said, the senior pastor at La Puente's Hacienda Christian Fellowship began to plot what became known as his "attention-getting action."

Now Romero could receive plenty of attention from Chinese officials.

Since the Olympics began, most foreign protesters have been questioned for several hours by police and then deported. But China appeared to be losing patience this week when it announced that six foreign Tibet protesters detained Tuesday would be held for 10 days on charges of "upsetting public order."

The U.S. Embassy responded with a statement urging Beijing to recognize the right of people to demonstrate peaceably.

Rosemary Romero -- who began dating Eddie Romero when they both were 14 and has been married to him nearly 38 years -- isn't sure what her husband will do Sunday.

"It's all in God's hands now," she said. "I can't bargain with God for his safety, I can't say to God that I want it to come out one way or another. That's the bottom line."

She has followed her husband's protest through occasional messages he dispatches through an e-mail-like system called Twitter. In one, he wrote: "Have u ever seen the tv series LOST? My hobbit hole is situated in the same environment except everything is real here. . . . And it bites."

She said that it took her "several years" to come to grips with her husband's plan, but that she now recognizes he had received "an invitation from God to do this."

"Eddie isn't a person who chitchats with God all the time. But he was very aware that he'd heard an invitation or message," she said.

So, on the day before the opening ceremony, Romero used paint apparently purchased at a Beijing Wal-Mart to cover the walls of two downtown hotel rooms with anti-Beijing statements and Bible verses. He beamed the protest back through a webcam, and friends posted the video online. He also alerted foreign reporters in Beijing, one of whom documented the protest with photos and stories.

Tony Thomas, a minister from the United Kingdom, wasn't sure what to make of the Southern California pastor who began to talk to him years ago about a Beijing protest.

Romero subsequently recruited Thomas to come to La Puente and serve as his spokesman while he's in China, although the two ministers agreed to disagree on whether Holy Scripture can be used to justify vandalizing hotel rooms.

"Eddie can use Scripture to do that, but I can't," Thomas said.

Romero, who was raised in the San Gabriel Valley, joined the Marines as an 18-year-old. He earned a Purple Heart and other decorations during a two-year tour of duty. But upon receiving his honorable discharge and returning to Southern California, Romero acknowledges in his church resume, he "experimented regularly with drugs" and was "spiritually lost."

He credits a 1971 epiphany with changing his life: "The gospel of Christ entered my life and life radically changed for my wife and I -- for the absolute good."

Mike O'Brien, 56, a friend of nearly 30 years, said he wasn't surprised to learn that Romero, who has five grandchildren, was on the lam in China after his protest.

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