More than 160 Christians were taken away by Beijing police yesterday as they tried to attend an outdoor service after being evicted from their usual place of worship, the church's pastor said, in what appears to be the largest crackdown on unofficial churches in years.
The move prompted fears that a new round of persecution is under way on underground churches. The Shouwang Protestant Church, one of the largest house churches on the mainland with nearly 1,000 members, has nowhere to worship after losing its rented premises in a spacious film studio. Official pressure forced the landlord to stop renting the venue to the church after last week's Sunday service.
Yesterday's incident came a week after renowned maverick artist Ai Weiwei was detained amid a wide security clampdown on rights activists on the mainland.
Hundreds of police officers - uniformed and in plain clothes - stood guard near a commercial building in the capital's Zhongguancun area, where the church had planned to worship, said members who witnessed the incident yesterday.
They started taking away worshippers who turned up around an hour before the service was scheduled to start at 8.30am and shoved them into police vehicles, said a church member who declined to be named. 'There were old people among those taken away,' said the church member, who left the vicinity to pray with other Christians in small groups outdoors after witnessing the detentions.
Pastor Jin Tianming, who was among at least five church leaders who were confined to their homes since Saturday afternoon, said 169 worshippers had been taken away by police. He said they were gathered in a school and were later taken to different police stations. Some were asked to promise they would never worship at Shouwang Church again. Ten were released as of last night, he said.
'We have not broken the law. There is no reason for the government to interfere,' said Jin, who remained under house arrest as of last night. 'But we have nothing to worry about, and we are willing to face the consequences.'
Jin said the 18-year-old church had been harassed by the authorities and forced to move more than 20 times, but had never had so many worshippers taken away by police. The last time the church was kicked out of its place of worship, in November 2009, the church held its Sunday services in a park two weeks in a row.
Jin said the church had wanted the authorities to give it a formal approval to worship freely on its own property. In late 2009, the church bought a 1,500-square-metre office space in a commercial building in northwest Beijing for 27 million yuan (HK$32 million), but the property's management was pressured by the authorities not to hand over the property to the church, even though it paid the total price in full, he said.
Despite the public confrontation, the pastor and church members said it was not a show of defiance, as they only wanted to obey the Bible's teaching by worshipping every Sunday. The church had told the congregation - largely composed of middle-class, university-educated professionals - that worshipping outdoors was part of a 'spiritual warfare led by God'.
Meanwhile, Ai remained incarcerated a week after he was stopped at Beijing airport from boarding a flight to Hong Kong.
His sister Gao Ge said the smear campaign by the authorities, including accusing him of committing unspecified economic crimes and plagiarism in the state media, was 'simply nonsense'.
'We are fully confident that Weiwei is innocent.'
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk