RELIGIOUS persecution in some mainland provinces has increased, with underground Christians being detained, fined and even tortured, according to Christian sources. ''The persecution never stops,'' an informed source quoted an underground church leader as saying. Persecution notwithstanding, the underground Christian population - believers who are not recognised by the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) - has soared to 60 to 70 million in recent years. The majority live in the provinces of Zhejiang, Henan, Anhui, Shaanxi, Fujian and eastern Guangdong. Christian sources said the growth had spread to provinces like Sichuan and Yunnan recently. While Beijing has maintained it respects the religious freedom of its citizens, rural police chieftains often treat underground Christian leaders as ''politically dangerous'' enemies, they said. In some rural counties in southwest Henan, Public Security officials have been known to ''rob'' underground Christians by placing stiff fines on them for organising illegal meetings. Police, according to sources, seldom issued receipts or certificates when they issued the fines, which ranged from 50 to 700 yuan (HK$67 to $938). Christians said it would prove useless to complain to the judiciary or higher authorities. ''All crows are black. There is no use,'' a house church leader in Henan said. In Sheqi county of Henan, sources said persecution reached a ''very serious'' level early this year when police seized livestock, crops and even furniture from Christians who could not afford the fines. An underground house leader there told visitors recently that Christians often faced corporal punishment and even torture when they were in detention. ''They first tortured us and then fined us,'' said the leader, adding police sometimes beat the detainees with electric truncheons, sticks and handcuffs. In one incident, police even poured boiling water over the head of a Christian when he refused to co-operate, the leader said. There are about 90,000 Christians in Fangcheng County of Henan and less than five per cent are known to attend TSPM meetings. House churches there are also active in sending missionaries across the country to spread the gospel. ''Our vision is to go towards the northwest . . . and especially along the Silk Road back to Jerusalem,'' one church leader there said. In Anhui, religious persecution has been even more rampant. According to Christian sources, six preachers sentenced to labour re-education by the authorities for engaging in ''illegal religious activities'' had disappeared. They said their families were stonewalled by police, who told them the preachers' whereabouts were ''none of their business'' when they tried to visit them recently. The families fear the preachers might have been sent to labour reform camps, sources said. Meanwhile, sources said Xu Fang, an underground Christian in Xunyang County of Shaanxi province, would soon be sent to a labour reform camp for leaking news of religious persecution in her village to the foreign press. Xu was arrested soon after it was reported that Shaanxi police had beaten another Christian, Lai Manping, to death after attending a church meeting.