Government, church face off in China

05/1/2011 China (TheHindu) – The detention of more than two dozen Chinese Christians and new restrictions placed on one of Beijing’s biggest Protestant churches this past week have underscored the growing tensions between the government and the country’s fast-growing underground Christian movement.

Last Sunday, many of the more than one thousand followers of the Shouwang Church in northwest Beijing were prevented from holding an Easter service. This followed the detention of several members of the congregation the previous Sunday, after the government said they broke regulations by conducting a service outdoors.

Until this month, the government had appeared willing to accommodate underground “house churches” such as Shouwang, though they lie outside the state-sanctioned system for religious worship.

But members of the church told The Hindu they were recently forced to move their service outdoors after they were prevented from acquiring a property for their church. They said they had agreed on a deal to purchase the property, but the deal later fell through as a result of government pressure.

Growing number

Unofficial house churches have spread in Chinese cities in recent years, with a growing number of Christians and an inadequate number of state-run churches to cater to their needs. There are more than 23 million Christians in China, according to the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. With the wide patronage of underground churches, the number is, however, likely to be higher.

The officially-atheist Chinese Communist Party allowed the setting up of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Christian movement in 1954 to bring churches under the regulation of the state and limit Western influence. While many churches were closed down and pastors jailed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the government has supported the setting up of churches since the opening up and reforms launched three decades ago.

The recent spread of underground house churches has, however, presented the government with a dilemma. Fan Yafeng, a lawyer and leader of a house church, told The Hindu in a recent interview that he believed the government had increasingly begun to tolerate the emergence of house churches, given their growing number of followers.

New restrictions

Beijing has six official churches, which can only accommodate 20,000 people. Mr. Fan said Christians were more than 10 times that number in the city.

But in recent weeks, the government appears to have placed new restrictions on large house churches in Beijing, against the backdrop of a recent trend of tightening controls over civil society groups. On April 16, authorities detained members of the Shouwang Church for conducting an outdoor service, after having failed to secure a meeting place for their congregation. Last week, Shouwang’s chief pastor, Jin Tianming, called on members of the church to assemble for an Easter service on Sunday. He also said many members of the church had recently been forced out of their jobs.

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