Christians detained as crackdown continues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am

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As the crackdown on mainland Christians continued for a fifth week, more than a dozen members of one of the most influential unofficial churches were detained yesterday as they tried to hold an outdoor service in defiance of government orders.

The Beijing-based Shouwang church, which has nearly 1,000 members, lost its place of worship last month after official pressure forced its landlord to evict it from rented premises. Officials also blocked the congregation from moving into an office space the church bought for 27 million yuan (HK$32 million) in 2009.

Yesterday, at least 15 church members were taken away near a proposed place of worship at a public plaza in the capital's commercial Zhongguancun area amid a heavy police presence, said church leaders. Three had been released by yesterday evening.

Some who were taken away continued worshipping inside police vehicles, they said. The church earlier posted an online order of service for congregation members to use in small groups in case they failed to hold a full service.

Many congregation members, especially those who had been detained on previous Sundays, were confined to their homes over the weekend, they said.

The six leaders of the church, some of whom have been prevented from leaving home since the eve of the first attempted outdoor service, remained under house arrest.

Police detained 169 worshippers when they tried to worship outdoors for the first time on April 10, then nearly 50 the week after and more than 30 on each of the past two Sundays. Religious affairs scholars say police appear to be following a strategy of placing more followers under house arrest so that they cannot worship outdoors.

Some Christians who had been previously detained have said they were able to sing hymns and pray while in custody, although they were also pressured by police to sign statements promising not to worship outdoors again.

A staff member at the Malianwa police station in the Haidian district confirmed yesterday that a female church member was being held there. He said the 'suspect' was being interrogated but could not give a reason for her detention, saying they were only following orders.

Religious affairs academics say harsher crackdowns in the past have not led to the demise of the church but instead made Christians more determined to spread their faith.

'Following several decades of political turmoil, house churches are still going strong. During the Cultural Revolution, when all the religious venues were closed, the number of Christians grew several-fold,' wrote Dr Yang Fenggang, director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US, in a paper last week.

The number of Christians on the mainland has grown from about two million 30 years ago to between 23 million (an official figure released last year) and 130 million. Some scholars estimate that at least 50 million are underground church members.

Additional reporting by Stephen Chen