BEIJING (AP) — Chinese police detained at least a dozen Christians belonging to an unregistered Beijing church as the congregants gathered Sunday to hold Easter services.
Police stopped the worshippers from the unregistered Shouwang church at they gathered near a public plaza in the city's university district, then bussed them to a local police station. It was not immediately clear whether they were arrested.
Shouwang members have been trying to meet at the plaza in Beijing's Haidian district every Sunday since the congregation was evicted from its usual rented place of worship three weeks ago, but they have been detained or put under house arrest each time.
A church member told The Associated Press by phone Saturday night that he and the church's pastors and leaders were all under house arrest. The member would give only his English name, Kane, for fear of reprisals by officials.
While China's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians are required to worship in churches run by state-controlled organizations — the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholics.
However, more than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in unregistered "house" churches, compared to about 20 million in the state churches, according to scholars and church activists. The growth of house churches has accelerated in recent years, producing larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes that gave the movement its name.
Their expansion and growing influence have unsettled China's rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge Communist authority.
Shouwang members have for years been at odds with Beijing officials over their right to worship. Tensions escalated earlier this month when the congregation was evicted from the Beijing restaurant where it had been holding services. Church leaders decided to temporarily hold services outdoors in a public space, prompting police to tape off the area and detain anyone who showed up to take part.
Shouwang leaders said in a statement last week that they tried to register with the government in 2006 but were rejected.
In December 2009, the church bought property in northwest Beijing for regular Sunday services but government interference prevented the group from occupying the space, the statement said.