Over 100 Christians, including children, were arrested during a major house church raid on Sunday in Foshan city in China's Guangdong Province. Close to 200 police officers stormed in during the service, eyewitnesses said, believed to be part of a large-scale crackdown on Christians in the country.
"We don't know exactly why they raided our church," a local believer told watchdog group International Christian Concern, which has been keeping track of the rising tide of persecution in China. "The government does not want us to get together and worship as a church."
Worshipers said that the church was raided without any warning, and that police only left behind a notice stating that people were detained for an "illegal gathering." More than 30 parishioners reportedly still remain in custody.
"It is unbelievable that local authorities arrested over 100 church members, including children, in Foshan city. Even though most people have been released, the experience has been traumatizing," said ICC's Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, Sooyoung Kim.
"ICC urges local authorities in Guangdong Province to respect its citizens' rights to religious freedom, that the government of China says are upheld, and free these innocent Christians as soon as possible."
The Mount Olivet Church has over 20 years of history and has close to 170 members, ICC added.
Only government-approved churches are legal in China, with all house churches considered "illegal gatherings." But even a number of officially sanctioned churches have been targeted by the government in recent months, with officials explaining that they have been "removing or modifying illegal constructions."
A Christian congregation in the southeast city of Wenzhou has made headlines for fighting back against riot police in an effort to save their church cross from destruction. Members of the Salvation Church have defended the cross for over two months, hosting all night prayer vigils, with video footage capturing the clashes on a number of occasions.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric," local church leader Chen Zhi'ai told CNN.
In July, a prominent Chinese leader was sentenced to 12 years in prison, supposedly for gathering crowds "to disturb public order." Other watchdog groups have called pastor Zhang Shaojie's imprisonment further evidence of China's attempt to hold back the growth of Christianity.
"This case shows the Chinese government continues to cover up religious persecution with fabricated criminal charges against an innocent church leader," China Aid head Bob Fu said at the time.