PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing police detained 13 Christians yesterday in an ongoing action against one of the mainland's most influential unregistered churches as the congregation tried to worship outdoors in the centre of the capital for the sixth week running, according to church leaders.

Amid a heavy police presence, the Shouwang Church followers were taken away when they tried to hold a Sunday service at a public plaza in the Zhongguancun commercial area.

Scores of church members, many detained on previous Sundays for trying to meet outdoors, were confined to their homes over the weekend. The church's six leaders have been under house arrest for more than a month.

Police detained 169 worshippers when the congregation tried to worship outdoors for the first time on April 10, then nearly 50 the second week. Religious affairs scholars say police appear to be placing more and more followers under house arrest so that they cannot go out to worship.

Shouwang, meaning 'to keep watch', became homeless after official pressure forced its previous landlord to evict it last month.

Observers worry that the authorities will only escalate the crackdown, which is in its sixth week.

'We have no idea about what will happen, but we trust that everything is in the hands of God,' said one of the church elders.

The church has been seeking formal approval from the authorities to worship on its own property - which it bought for 27 million yuan (HK$32 million) in 2009 - but officials blocked the move into the 1,500-square-metre office space.

Four days ago, the church said in an online statement that more than 30 followers had been forced to move after their landlords had evicted them under government pressure, and nearly 10 lost their jobs because they refused to leave the church. It said these actions were against the law and the constitution, which guarantees religious freedom, and warned that church members may take legal action.

'If citizens lost their jobs or homes just because they were going to a certain church ... [and] if the government was responsible, then it is abusing its authority and is carrying out religious persecution,' it said.

In solidarity with Shouwang, leaders of 20 unofficial mainland churches and Christian groups made an unprecedented appeal last week to the National People's Congress, calling for their right to worship freely to be upheld. Some had also been evicted in recent years.

Religious affairs experts feared the bold move could spark a new round of action against the 'house' churches, which are considered illegal because they are not registered. Leaders of three of the churches involved in the petition said they were able to worship normally yesterday.

Responding to questions on the church at a regular press conference last week, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said its members had 'tried to gather illegally' and police had taken 'appropriate measures'.

The authorities have largely tolerated small gatherings of unregistered churches but are wary of evangelical churches such as Shouwang, with its fast-developing and educated congregation. The congregation has grown from fewer than 10 people in 1993 to about 1,000 now.

Liu Peng, a Beijing-based academic who studies church-state relations, said the continuing confrontation between Shouwang and the government showed the urgent need of legislation on religious affairs to safeguard freedom of worship.

Telephone calls to the Beijing Public Security Bureau went unanswered yesterday.