(Photo: Reuters / David Gray)
Despite appeals from religious freedom groups, Chinese authorities continued their crackdown on a prominent house church, stopping hundreds of Christians from holding Easter services outdoors on Sunday.
Dozens from the 1,000-member Shouwang Church, one of Beijing's largest unregistered Protestant churches, were detained while at least 500 were confined to their homes, according to China Aid Association.
"We are deeply disappointed that the Chinese authorities chose to disrupt peaceful worshippers who were simply celebrating Easter today," said China Aid founder and president Pastor Bob Fu in a statement Sunday.
"By doing this, Chinese government again demonstrates its total disregard for Chinese citizens’ basic religious freedom and freedom of assembly. We continue to call upon the free world to stand firm in solidarity with the persecuted faithful in China."
This is the third week in a row that Shouwang members were kept from worshipping. Though aware of the risks, the evangelical church began scheduling outdoor services this month after government intervention made it impossible for the church to secure an indoor meeting place. Shouwang has been evicted from several rented locations.
Ahead of Easter services, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom appealed to the Chinese government to allow Christians to proceed with their worship during Christianity's holiest week without harassment or detention.
USCIRF chair Leonard Leo denounced China's "intolerance" to peaceful religious activity and noted that in Shouwang's case, the church tried to follow the rules but in vain.
"The Shouwang Church tried to play by rules that the Chinese government keeps changing. Beijing’s action further alienates the fast growing number of religious believers in China, particularly during Easter, the most sacred week in Christianity," he said in an earlier statement.
While China allows freedom of religious belief and protects religious activities, religious groups are required to register with the government and operate under officials religious bodies, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council.
Unregistered, or house, churches are not outlawed but are not permitted to openly hold religious services.
Before Easter, Shouwang Church leaders sent out an email to the congregation to inform them of their meeting location. The email revealed that several church members have been forced to move or leave their jobs, according to The New York Times. They also indicated that they expected to be stopped by police.
According to China Aid, which monitors human rights and persecution in China, Beijing police moved early in detaining four evangelists from Shouwang on Thursday. Meanwhile, the church's founder and senior pastor, Jin Tianming, remained under house arrest.
Other house churches in Beijing have expressed their solidarity with Shouwang by joining in prayer and fasting.
Amid mounting pressure from human rights groups along with USCIRF, the United States is scheduled to hold a two-day dialogue on human rights with China beginning Wednesday. Discussions will focus on human rights developments, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, among other things.