Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Police stopped members of the Shouwang Protestant Church from taking part in outdoor Easter celebrations in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district. At least 36 people were arrested, including worshippers and clergymen. Dozens more were placed under house arrest.
Rev Jin Tianming said that clergymen and members of his community were placed under house arrest even before Easter to prevent them from praying in public. Police in fact stopped them from leaving home on Easter Sunday.
About 20 Christians were able to meet anyway, and prayed on Easter Sunday morning. After dozens of police surrounded them, they were taken in custody on charges of “illegal gathering”. Throughout the morning, more worshippers arrived just to be detained and taken away.
Shouwang is one of the largest house churches, with about a thousand members. Its officials have applied for registration to hold authorised meetings. However, their request has not been answered so far. Instead, at the start of April, the authorities had them expelled from the site they used for service, something that the latter have done 20 times before.
Police have also stopped them when they tried to pray outdoors, arresting people as soon as they show up at events announced online. On Sunday 10 April for example, 169 people were arrested. A week later, another 50 received the same treatment.
“The government cannot interfere with the Church’s faith,” said Rev Jin, who has been under house arrest since 9 April.
Still, last week the Shouwang Church urged its members to meet anyway to celebrate Easter, even if it meant arrest.
In 2009, it bought premises to hold its meetings, paying US$ 27 million yuan (more than US$ 4 million), but the authorities scuttle the deal.
In Guangzhou, more than thousand people gathered last Sunday at the Rongguili house church. Its leader, Rev Lin Xiangao, also known as Samuel Lamb, 86, has been charged and interrogated by the authorities several times.
China’s Protestant community numbers in the tens of millions. Most members belong to unregistered house churches. The government wants them to join the Three Autonomies Movement, an organisation created to put Protestants under Communist Party control.
Altogether about 20 million Christians worship in state Churches against about 50 (some say 100) million who attend underground Churches.
The Shouwang is one of the largest and most important Churches. Many believe that it was targeted as a warning to other, smaller Christian groups.
Experts say that since many Christians are also human rights activists or support human rights groups, the authorities have tried to prevent any link between religious faith and human rights protection.
The wave of persecution that began in February is the worst of its kind since 1998. Dissidents and pro-democracy activists have been targeted because the authorities fear Jasmine Revolution-like contagion.
On Easter Sunday, Peng Tianhui, Li Renyu and Kan Siyun were released on bail, pending their trial. They had been arrested on 25 March for “instigating subversion” because they had protested against the conviction of dissident Liu Xianbin.
On 19 April, Jin Guanghong, a lawyer who disappeared on 8 or 9 April, was also let go. In prison, he was tortured but said he could not remember anything about his detention.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders have reported the disappearance of at least 17 activists in the last few weeks. They are apparently being held be in prison without charges.