CHINA: Police arrest 169 Beijing house church members

At least 169 Christians were arrested in a crackdown on Shouwang Church in Beijing on Sunday 10 April 2011. Most were released within 24 hours, but a pastor, his wife and another woman remain in custody. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Shouwang Church is one of Beijing’s biggest house churches, with about 1,000 members. It had to resort to holding its worship service outdoors on 10 April because it had been refused permission to use its regular meeting venue and could not get permission for another. The congregation met in a public area of western Beijing for the regular 8.30am worship service, but the large, unregistered outdoor gathering attracted the attention of the authorities, and up to 1000 police arrived.

Unregistered church activity in China is usually tolerated if no more than 50 people gather, especially if they are related and the gathering can be seen as a family get-together. Danger arises if the group is perceived as politically active – the authorities are likely to view a large gathering as a political protest.

CHURCH MEMBERS LOADED INTO BUSES

The police sealed off the site of the Shouwang gathering and loaded the detainees into several buses. Most were taken to a nearby school, while others were held in local police stations. The police interrogated the Christians (who sang hymns while in detention), took down their names and personal details and ordered some to write statements of repentance and personal guarantees. Many refused and were not released until well after midnight.

Members of the congregation who managed to evade the police regrouped in smaller numbers nearby and proceeded to hold their service. One group, gathered at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, was broken up by the police. A church member tweeted that the police behaved “like wolves and tigers”. This crackdown was the largest on an unregistered Protestant congregation for years.

In further security measures, surveillance vehicles were positioned outside the apartment buildings of many church members, the church website was taken down and mobile phone coverage in the area of the meeting site was shut down, in an apparent effort to suppress news of the crackdown. At least one foreign reporter, the correspondent for The Toronto Star, was detained for several hours and had his press credentials confiscated. The police turned other foreign reporters away from the area.

LEADERS HELD UNDER HOUSE ARREST

The authorities had heard about the planned outdoor gathering in advance, and they put 24 of Shouwang church’s clergy and lay leaders under informal house arrest on Saturday night, to prevent them from attending. Other church members were called in for talks by various authorities including the local police, work supervisors, school leaders and neighbourhood committees, who warned them not to participate in the outdoor meeting.
The problems have arisen because Shouwang church is not a registered member of the officially-recognised Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Like all other unregistered house churches, Shouwang church is not willing to be subject to the controls and restrictions of the TSPM. Such churches refuse to register for reasons including theological differences, reluctance to reveal names and addresses of leaders and members and fears that sermon content will be controlled.

For more than a year, Shouwang Church held three services each Sunday in a restaurant, but the owner issued repeated requests for the church to find another venue. Other rental properties were sought, but the authorities pressurised prospective landlords to refuse to rent, even after contracts had been signed. The church tried to buy its own property, but it was unable to close the deal after the seller refused to sign the contract and hand over the keys. Members of the church claim that the seller came under government pressure. (China Aid, Compass Direct)