Chinese police forces recently arrested 270 Protestant house church pastors in an eastern province, reported a Chinese Christian human rights organization.
The pastors were gathering in the district of Hedeng in Shandong province when about 50 policemen from 12 different towns raided the meeting place, blindfolded and handcuffed attendees and took them to the local police station for questioning, according to U.S.-based China Aid Association (CAA.).
CAA's president, the Rev. Bob Fu, told The Christian Post that 70 Christian leaders remain in prison as of Thursday morning.
The massive arrest took place last Friday at around 1:30 p.m. local time when the clergymen were gathering for a Bible study, according to AsiaNews. A police squad arrived in armored trucks and arrested participants for engaging in an "illegal religious gathering," recalled an eyewitness, who noted the raid was "violent and swift."
Some 120 pastors had been released early on after paying 300 yuan (US $40) as an "interrogation tax," according to AsiaNews.
"Obviously, the detention of these pastors illustrates China's insincerity in moving toward a culture of religious tolerance," commented Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins in a statement Tuesday.
"While the regime tries to project itself as progressive, the reality is that China has no intention of abiding by international law or abandoning its hostility to Western religious ideals," noted Perkins, an influential conservative Christian leader.
FRC issued a letter on Tuesday to the U.S. State Department urging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to broker the remaining pastors' quick release.
China allows protestant Christian groups to exist but requires them to register with the government-sanctioned Three Self-Patriotic Movement. There are about 10 million members within the state-approved Protestant church group.
According to CAA, there is a campaign to "normalize" underground Protestant churches by giving them two options: either join the Three Self-Patriotic Movement or be oppressed by government forces.
House church worshippers refuse to join the TSPM because they argue God should be the head of the church and not the government. They also believe that requiring government-approval to hold religious gatherings is a violation of their religious freedom.
China has been under greater scrutiny by the international community for its human rights conduct as it prepares to host the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Although it claims to be a country of religious tolerance, human rights groups have reported a secret campaign to crackdown on unregistered church activities before the Olympics.
Many house church pastors in Beijing have been visited and "requested" to leave the city before the Games, according to Open Doors' contacts in China.
"These crackdowns on Chinese house church believers and others is not unexpected as the communist government of China tries to put its best foot forward to the world in preparing for the Olympics," commented Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA – a Christian persecution watchdog.
In a widely publicized event, over 100 foreign missionaries were expelled from China and some even blacklisted earlier this summer. The massive expulsion was the largest of its kind since 1954 after the communist government took power in 1949.
Some U.S. human rights groups have urged a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if China does not improve its human rights record before the Games.
China has an underground Christian population estimated to be as high as 100 million, although experts are quick to point out the difficulty in obtaining the real count.