Chinese police arrests Christians again for praying in public

Beijing, China – Police yesterday arrested the leaders of the Shouwang Protestant Church in Beijing. They also detained about 50 members of the congregation in order to prevent them from holding Sunday services in public after they were expelled from their usual premises a week earlier. This has raised fears that Chinese authorities might be tightening the screw on house churches ahead of Easter. Analysts see the crackdown on hundreds of dissidents and human rights activists starting in February as caused by fears over a possible Chinese-styled Jasmine Revolution.

The Shouwang Protestant Church in Beijing is one of the largest house churches on the mainland with nearly 1,000 members. Recently, police evicted them from their usual premises. Yesterday, large numbers of police were deployed near the building in the Zhongguancun area where the Shouwang church planned to worship.

As soon as worshippers began arriving, police shoved them into buses and took them to different police stations for interrogation. Most were still in custody late into the night.

The same happened a week ago when after police detained 169 worshippers of the same Church, and held them overnight.

Last Saturday night, Rev Jin Tianming was taken away by police and interrogated for nearly 12 hours. Rev Li Xiaobai and his wife were also detained Saturday night and held for a few hours. Rev Zhang Xiaofeng was also briefly taken into custody. Both Revs Li and Jin are now under house arrest.

Jin said that his Church bought a 1,500-square-metre office space in a commercial building for 27 million yuan, but the property's management was pressured by the authorities not to hand it over, even though the church had paid in full.

The Church had applied for recognition in 2006 but has not yet received an answer.

“We are accused of gathering illegally,” a member of the congregation said. However, ““This won’t stop until we have an indoor site for congregation,” another member said.

It is not yet clear whether those in detention will be released. Last Sunday, those who had been arrested were forced to sign a statement pledging not to pray in public again.

In the past, the Shouwang Church had already been thrown out of its premises, forcing its members to pray in parks and other public places. However, no one was ever arrested for that.

Also on Saturday night, police detained Rev Zhang Guangxia, who heads another Shouwang congregation in Zuozhuang, Shandong. Similary, Rev Zhang Qingan and three members of his congregation were arrested yesterday for handing out religious brochures.

China’s counts tens of millions of Protestants, mostly affiliated with unregistered house churches.

The authorities demand they all join the Three Autonomies Movement, a Protestant organisation controlled by the Communist Party; however, only about 20 million have done so. Another 50 (some say 100) million have preferred to join underground churches.

Given the fact that the Shouwang Church is one of the largest and better known of the underground churches, many fear that the persecution against smaller churches is probably even more intense.

Likewise, experts note that since many Christians are also human rights activists or supporters, the authorities have made a great effort to prevent any convergence between religious faith and human rights protection.