BEIJING (BP)–China’s abuse of religious freedom, which often takes place behind the scenes, was on display for the entire world April 10 when approximately 200 members of an unregistered Protestant church were arrested and placed on a bus during broad daylight in Beijing, the nation’s capital.
It was one of the largest crackdowns on an unregistered church in years, with upwards of 1,000 police involved.
The scene, recorded on a BBC video and reported by newspapers such as The New York Times and The Toronto Star, took place as members of Shouwang Church attempted to meet in an outdoor public plaza. The congregation had lost its indoor facility and had used the Internet to advertise the outdoor church meeting.
At least 169 church members were arrested, ChinaAid reported, and most of them had been freed by the next day, although the pastor and his wife and another woman were still in police custody. But that does not mean the other church members are free to worship again. ChinaAid, which monitors human rights abuses in the country, said surveillance vehicles “remained outside the apartment buildings of many Shouwang members” and that “their freedom of movement” likely “will remain restricted for some time to come.”
For a church to be legal in China, it must register with the government. Churches not registered can face restrictions on growth and evangelism. The underground church movement is far larger than the registered church membership.
The Shouwang Church members were scheduled to gather at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, but some were seized as they left their homes and others arrested when they arrived off the subway at the plaza, located in the Zhongguangcun commercial area of Beijing. Police had surrounded the plaza. Most members were put on buses and taken to an elementary school, while others were taken to a police station. The Christians “sang hymns and worshipped” while in detention, ChinaAid reported.
“Police interrogated the detainees, took down their names and other personal details, fingerprinted them and ordered some to write statements of repentance and personal guarantees,” ChinaAid said. “Many refused and were not released until well after midnight.”
Undeterred, the members who eluded arrest gathered in smaller groups at other locations and — with the worship order sheet in hand — proceeded to hold smaller-scale services. One group met at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where police found the members and broke up the service, ChinaAid said.
“A tweet from a church member described the police as behaving ‘like wolves and tigers,'” ChinaAid said.
The government took the church’s website down and apparently also shut down cell phone coverage in the area hoping to “keep news of the crackdown from getting out,” ChinaAid reported.
Some of the church’s leaders were put under house arrest beginning the Saturday night before the meeting.
The church’s pastor, Jin Tianming, had warned the congregation the previous week that they might face resistance at the public meeting, The New York Times reported. “At this time, the challenges we face are massive,” he said in his sermon at the time. “For everything that we have faced, we offer our thanks to God. Compared with what You faced on the cross, what we face now is truly insignificant.”
It isn’t the government’s first confrontation with the church, The Times said. In 2008, China forced the church out of a rented facility. The church then paid for a floor in an office building but the building’s owner — “under pressure from the authorities” — never gave the church the keys, The Times reported. The church “had been meeting in a restaurant.”
In the days leading up to the meeting, the government apparently tried to pressure members not to attend the meeting.
“Shouwang church members were called in for talks by various authorities, including the local police, work supervisors, school leaders and neighborhood committees, who warned them not to participate in the outdoor meeting on Sunday,” ChinaAid said.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press. Watch the video of the arrest on BBC’s China affiliate at http://bbc.in/hj7QVc