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4/19/2011 China (IrishTimes) – As Easter approaches, congregations from China’s “underground” Christian churches are feeling the effects of a broadening crackdown on dissent, as police in Beijing detained dozens of followers of a Protestant house church in recent days.

The clampdown was sparked by official fears of the spread of “Jasmine Revolution”-style unrest from the Arab world to authoritarian China.

About 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worship at official churches in China, but more than 50 million others reportedly worship at “house” churches, which refuse to submit to government regulation.

At least 54 artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals have been taken away. The most high- profile figure to be detained was the controversial artist Ai Weiwei, according to figures from the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group.

Police at the weekend detained Jin Tianming, a senior pastor of the Shouwang house church in Beijing, and other church leaders.

The congregation is one of Beijing’s biggest; the previous weekend it staged an outdoor meeting that was broken up by police, resulting in scores of detentions. “We urge the Chinese government to restrain from using violence to further escalate the conflict with peaceful Shouwang worshippers who ask for nothing but religious freedom alone,” said the China Aid group.

There is still no news about the whereabouts of Ai Weiwei, with only sketchy information that he probably faces charges of “economic crimes”.

“The West will undoubtedly oppose any future verdict on Ai Weiwei, as it aims to put down Chinese values,” ran an editorial in the Global Times newspaper.

Christians and dissidents are not the only ones affected by the crackdown. There are reports, confirmed by the Global Times, of a stand-off between Chinese security forces and residents outside the Kirti Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan province.

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