BEIJING, CHINA (Worthy News)-- Police detained dozens of members from one of the largest underground churches in China's capital Beijing Sunday, April 17, as part of a wider crackdown on dissent, a Christian rights group said.
Hours earlier security forces arrested leaders of the 1000-strong Shouwang Church, including Senior Pastor Jin Tianming and Pastor Li Xiaobai with his wife, before releasing them late Saturday and early Sunday, said China Aid Association (CAA).
The group said at least 30 members of Shouwang Church remained in custody after being detained Sunday morning, April 17, when they tried to pray outdoors "at the same site for the second week in a row."
Reporters said they were followed by plain clothes police and were warned not to interview the Christians.
Additionally, CAA said, "Many members of Shouwang Church were restricted to their homes...and unable to attend Shouwang Church's second outdoor worship service this year."
Last Sunday, April 10, 169 church members were rounded up by police and held for up to 24 hours when they attempted to hold a worship service in a public plaza in western Beijing, CAA said.
CAA told Worthy News that Christians have also lost their homes and jobs. "Many members of the Shouwang Church, one of Beijing's largest house churches with about 1,000 members, have been forced out of their homes by landlords who have come under intense pressure to evict them," the group said in a statement.
"Others have been fired from their jobs for worshiping at Shouwang Church," CAA added, citing an unidentified church leader.
Shouwang Church has been holding open air meetings after being evicted by authorities who are reportedly wary to lose control over religion and the increasing number of Christians in the Communist-run nation.
Earlier this month church members were seen crying when the landlord told them they "can no longer worship at" Beijing's “Old Story Restaurant”, where walls are lined with pictures of Chinese Party leaders shaking hands with former U.S. presidents.
Other locations have also been out of reach for the thriving "house" church, amid pressure from local authorities, church leaders said. Shouwang tried in 2006 to register with the government but its application was rejected, the church said in a statement distributed by CAA.
In 2009, the church bought property in northwest Beijing for regular Sunday services but government interference prevented the group from occupying the space, forcing them to worship outside in a snow storm, the statement said.
Before the latest round of detentions, the church leadership told members they may have to prepare themselves for gatherings in the open air, and the consequences. "This is the cross that the church has to bear," Pastor Jin Tianming told worshipers recently about the prospect of worship outdoors.
Shouwang Church, which include many middle-class and student Christians, has been targeted as officials oppose its large evangelistic meetings, local Christians have suggested.
The standoff comes at a time when the Chinese Communist government is stepping up control over what it views as groups potentially undermining the country's one-party system -- including thriving house churches -- amid concerns that revolutions against autocratic leaders in the Arab world will encourage more open calls for political and religious freedoms in China.
130 MILLION CHRISTIANS?
There are believed to be at least tens of millions of Protestant Christians in China, divided between registered Catholic and Protestant denominations and the underground, "house "churches, such as Shouwang Church. Many of the house churches began as small Bible groups at homes of individual believers but soon grew into much largest congregations.
Officials within the Communist Party have been quoted as saying privately there may be as many as 130 million Christians in China, one of the largest growing Christian communities in the world.
CAA said it has urged evangelical organizations worldwide, including the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the National Association for Evangelicals (NAE), "to speak up on behalf of these persecuted believers."
The group has criticized WEA for suggesting Christianity was alive and well after meetings in 2009 with senior leaders of the government-approved China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who form and supervise the registered Protestant churches in China.
CAA said at the time that the WEA statement contained "no acknowledgment of the existence and current deteriorating condition of the more than 80 million believers in China who have chosen, often with dangerous and uncertain consequences, to worship outside the state-sanctioned religious system."
CHURCHES' "CRITICAL TIME"
On Sunday, April 17, CAA founder and president Bob Fu told Worthy News that "This is a critical time for global church leaders like WEA and NAE to speak up for fellow brothers and sisters in China."
He said, "God and his persecuted church will hold us accountable if we keep silent when we know clearly what we can and should do for our persecuted Body of Christ."
There was no immediate reaction from WEA, but the group has earlier issued statements expressing concerns about reports of persecution in China.
Chinese officials declined to comment on Sunday, April, 17.
Fu said he has urged the Chinese government "to exercise restraint and refrain from using violence that would further escalate the conflict with peaceful Shouwang worshipers who ask for nothing more than simply to exercise their right to religious freedom."