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5/15/2011 China (NYTimes) – More than a dozen Christian leaders in China have thrown their support behind an embattled underground church, calling for the government to end its persecution and for broader religious freedoms as well.

Their petition, a rare public gesture for religious figures, who are often wary of wading into politics, raises the stakes in a standoff that has drawn concern from Christian groups outside China and prompted a separate petition campaign in the United States and Canada.

Nineteen pastors signed the petition, delivered Wednesday to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, and posted on the Internet. It calls for legal protections for so-called house churches, which operate illicitly outside the government-run religious system.

The petition also calls on the legislature to investigate the crackdown on one such church, Shouwang, an evangelical Protestant congregation whose leaders have been under house arrest for more than a month.

The church and its 1,000 members became homeless in early April after the landlord, under pressure from the authorities, canceled its lease. Since then, the parishioners have tried to pray outdoors each Sunday, prompting a predictable cat-and-mouse game with the police, who prevent some members from leaving their homes and round up those who manage to reach the predetermined place of worship.

Carsten Vala, an expert on Chinese Christianity at Loyola University Maryland, said the petition ratcheted up pressure on the ruling Communist Party at a time when it was increasingly nervous about perceived challenges to its authority. “This shows there is national attention to what’s happening to Shouwang and that there is connection among urban house churches across the country,” he said.

The petition blames an “outdated system of religion management” for a crisis that is stirring up the tens of millions of Chinese believers who have come to place more faith in Christianity than in the atheist Communist Party. It also suggests that such policies will invariably lead to more social strife, the very thing Chinese leaders are so eager to avoid.

“We hope that by setting up a special investigation commission, the government will be able to handle the Shouwang incident in a rational and wise manner on basis of the principles of ‘putting people first and ruling the country by law’ and in the gracious spirit of serving the citizens, so as to avoid the escalation of the conflict between state and church,” the petition says, quoting a common slogan of the current leadership.

The document was written by Xie Moshan and Li Tianen, patriarchs of the house church movement, who have each spent more than a decade in Chinese prisons.

The persecution of Shouwang and a number of other unregistered churches coincides with a wider clampdown in China, fueled by unrest in the Arab world, which has led to the detention of scores of dissidents, rights lawyers and other perceived critics.

Like many unofficial churches, Shouwang started out in a private home, but in recent years it has become one of the capital’s largest and most affluent congregations. In 2009, after a previous eviction forced the church to worship in a park, parishioners donated more than $4 million to purchase a space of their own. But despite having a deed in hand, the church has not been permitted by the government to occupy the space, a conflict that led to the current crisis.

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