Worthy News Asia Service
BEIJING, CHINA (Worthy News)-- Chinese police detained "over 100 members" of one of China's largest unregistered Protestant churches Sunday, April 10, after its members tried to hold an open-air prayer meeting in the capital Beijing, a Christian rights group said.
The U.S.-based China Aid Association (CAA), which has close ties with Christians in China, said members of the Shouwang Church were met by scores of police, including plain clothes officers, when they gathered in a square outside a commercial complex in Beijing's Zhongguancun district.
Reporters put the number of those detained slightly lower saying police forced "scores" of parishioners into buses and blocked church leaders from leaving their homes. The New York Times newspaper said among those detained was also its photographer, who was later released. It was not clear how many Christians had been freed Sunday, April 10, and Chinese officials did not reveal more details.
Sunday's attempted public prayer came after the Shouwang Church was evicted from the Beijing facility it had been renting. Christians said the government pressured the landlord not to renew the lease.
The congregation, one of the largest so-called "house churches" in China, has been seeking legal recognition from the authorities since 2006, without success.
"By using force today in the capital of China to prevent Shouwang Church members from following their conscience in continuing their weekly practice of Sunday worship in full knowledge of the risk they faced, the Beijing authorities have again demonstrated their total disregard of their citizens' constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to religious freedom," CAA president Bob Fu said.
Church members met outdoors once before in 2009, despite an early winter snowstorm, as the church was unable to use a building it purchased because the seller refused to hand over the keys after government pressure, according to CAA investigators.
Sunday's detentions came at a sensitive time following online calls in mid-February for weekly 'strolling' protests against the government each Sunday in dozens of Chinese cities.
The sites of the 'jasmine' protests have been heavily policed but several hundred protesters apparently gathered in Shanghai on February 27, news reports said.
An anonymous open letter circulating via the Internet last month urged Chinese Christians to hold public prayers each Sunday afternoon at the sites, but it remained unclear if any Christians have protested.
CAA said in December that the ruling Communist Party had launched a four-month crackdown on unregistered churches.
There are at least tens of millions of Protestant Christians in China, divided between registered denominations and unregistered "house "churches. 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.
Chinese authorities say there is religious freedom for churches that register with the government, but many Christian groups refuse to do so, saying worshiping God is too restricted within China's official denominations.
Security forces have raided house churches and arrested Christians across the country. Several Christians remain detained.
Despite the reported crackdown, Shouwang Church has refused to register with the government, saying its congregation belongs to God alone. Its leadership told members last week to prepare for difficult gatherings in the open air. "This is the cross that the church has to bear," Pastor Jin Tianming said in a sermon. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).