BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police detained dozens of Christians on Sunday who were trying to converge at the site of a banned Easter service.
While Easter services for tens of millions of Christians across China mostly went ahead unhindered, police led away people trying to gather in northwest Beijing, where the Shouwang Church had called for outdoor services after it was evicted from its rented premises during a clampdown on dissent.
Leaders of the Shouwang Church have said they have no political agenda and want only to find a permanent place to worship for its 1,000 or so members, who refuse to accept official demands that churches come under the direct oversight of Communist Party authorities.
The contention over religious rights that began early this month continued when police officers shunted dozens of people, many of them young adults, onto buses as they turned up near the walkway where the church had said it would pray on Sundays.
A dozen or so people herded onto one bus appeared to be singing hymns. Police and plain clothes guards patrolling the area in Beijing's Zhongguancun district prevented reporters from approaching the detainees, who mostly did not appear to resist detention.
In past years, the Chinese government has relaxed some restrictions on "house" churches that refuse Party oversight, and many members of these churches are watching the Shouwang dispute to see if it marks a fresh tightening, said Wang Yi, a leader of one such church in southwest China.
"The Shouwang Church has gone further than most in wanting to emerge from being a house church to being a fully open church with its own premises, so in that sense it stands out from smaller churches, but it is also a test of what may come," Wang said in a telephone interview.
"The Shouwang Church represents a trend that many house churches will faces as they grow, so what happens to it could have an impact on churches in many areas, and it's being watched closely."
Wang said that his house church in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was able to worship unhindered on Easter, a major celebration in the Christian calendar when scripture says Jesus rose from the dead.
A member of the Shouwang Church, who asked not to be identified for fear of recrimination, said a dozen or so of its leaders were under house arrest or had been detained, and many ordinary members had chosen to pray privately or in small groups. Shouwang means "watch tower."
On Saturday, Chinese police also detained Zhang Mingxuan, a Beijing pastor who is president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, said Bob Fu of the China Aid Association, a Texas-based group critical of China's controls on religion.
Chinese officials blocked planned Easter services by two large "house" churches in the southern city of Guangzhou, Fu also said in a telephone interview.
The church dispute has come while the Chinese government seeks to ward off any attempts by would-be protesters to take up calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" inspired by anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
Alarmed by such calls, Chinese authorities detained many dozens, if not hundreds, of dissidents, human rights activists and persistent protesters. Many remain in custody, including the well-known artist Ai Weiwei, who officials have said is suspected of "economic crimes," a charge his family rejects.
On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that the Shouwang Church was "an organization with no legal basis."
The eviction is the latest chapter in a series of disputes over the church, which started out in a rented apartment in 1993. It had been worshipping on Sundays in a rented restaurant until the landlord ended the agreement, which church members blamed on official pressure.
Estimates of how many Chinese people are Christian vary widely, especially because many of them are members of Protestant or Catholic congregations that shun Party oversight.
Surveys in recent years have concluded that, in all, there could be about 40 million Protests and 14 million Catholics.
The Catholic church in China is divided between a government-recognized side that curtails the Pope's authority to ordain bishops and manage church affairs, and an "underground" side that refuses to accept government controls.
Pope Benedict has been encouraging reconciliation between the two sides of the Chinese church and exploring establishing formal ties with Beijing.
But this month, the Vatican said bishops installed in China without papal blessing were a "grave wound" on the entire church.
(Additional reporting by David Gray; Editing by Robert Birsel)