Public worship for foreign Christians living in Guangzhou has, for the most part, been subject to little interference from local authorities and businesses. But now, it seems, the privilege of meeting in a large group is about to end. The Guangdong Religious Affairs Bureau has not renewed the operating licence for a group of foreign Christians, known as the Guangzhou International Christian Fellowship. The licence, which gives the fellowship the legal right to meet for corporate worship, was first issued by the bureau in 2000 and has been renewed annually. The latest licence expired in August. The licence was the first of its kind issued to foreigners living in China. According to the agreement, the fellowship can meet regularly only at the Star Hotel, with the stipulation that no local Chinese take part in services. It is unique in that it allows the fellowship to operate independently, separate from the state-run Three-Self Church. So far, the bureau has not given any reason for not renewing the licence. Meanwhile, hotel officials have set an October 14 deadline for the fellowship to get their licence renewed, otherwise members will no longer be allowed to use the facilities for worship. The interdenominational Christian group currently meets every Sunday on the third floor. Some fellowship members suspect that the growing number of worshippers could be one reason for the religious affairs bureau's decision. In 2000, the group had about 150 regular attendees. This year, the fellowship has grown to more than 350. It includes people from more than 30 countries. Regular attendees include diplomatic staff from seven consulates, employees from international corporations, such as Proctor & Gamble and PricewaterhouseCoopers, as well as expatriates who work as English teachers in and around Guangzhou. According to the fellowship's website, the group started meeting informally in 1983 at one expatriate's home. By 1998, it had moved to the Star Hotel, where it offered various functions for the international Christian community, including a children's church, prayer nights, classes on bringing up children, marriage-guidance counselling, singles groups, English teacher support groups, a library and other social activities. All of them are run by a group of more than 30 volunteers. To many expats, the fellowship has played a vital role in their lives in Guangzhou through its network of members and services. 'When you're far away from home and alone, it's good to have spiritual brothers and sisters who can support you,' said Bella Tan, a medical student from Malaysia. 'This fellowship is just like a home church for me.' Rick Barnes, an American, said: 'I hope it can continue in its current form. There are some pretty good sermons that come out of there. It will be a real loss if they have to stop meeting.' Given the fact that religious freedom remains a sensitive topic in China, local, provincial and city authorities have been gracious in allowing something like the fellowship to exist. Issuing an operating licence for the group to meet at the Star Hotel was a significant sign that Guangzhou was becoming an international city, open to the outside world. The city and the religious affairs bureau have a unique opportunity to show that they really do care about the needs of foreigners living in Guangzhou by either renewing the licence or providing an alternative location where the fellowship can continue to provide its services.