China's House Church Crackdown Gathers Pace

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have launched a crackdown on two unofficial Protestant "house churches" in recent days, according to a prominent church leader.

House churches in Shandong's Linshu and Yutai counties have been ordered to close and accused of "illegal assembly," pastor Zhang Mingxuan, who heads the nationwide Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance, said on Tuesday.

"They were holding a meeting in one of the members' homes," Zhang said, describing an April raid by police on a prayer service in Linshu county. "There were more than 20 people present."

"The police and the religious affairs bureau officials said that this was an illegal assembly and banned them," he said. "They also fined them 20,000 yuan (U.S. $3,260)."

"They were issued a notice of banning."

The raids come after Shandong authorities launched a probe into local unofficial Protestant "house churches"  in March.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party's ideological agency in Jiaozhou city called on township Party committees and neighborhood committees to investigate fully all unofficial venues of worship in their territory, according to a Party document posted on the website of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid.

The document required local authorities to complete their investigation and report the results by March 25, including details of group leaders and key members, numbers of worshipers, and activities engaged in, as well as any contacts with overseas organizations.

Police raided the Linshu gathering on April 25, calling the pastor Wu Dawei in for questioning and forcing him to produce the group's records, including records of attendance and donations, ChinaAid said.

Wu told RFA on Tuesday that the police had now labeled the church an "illegal organization."

"They have sent me two notifications of sanction, and told me to sign, but I refused," Wu said. "They summoned me to the religious affairs bureau, and I have already been there several times, and they have taken all our accounts."

"We only had around 6,000 yuan (U.S. $980) in donated funds at the time, but they said they were illegally raised funds," he said.

Wu said he was surprised at the harshness of the punishment. "This is the first time, so you'd think they'd issue a warning or a notice of rectification or something," he said.

"I think this is illegal," he said, adding that the church had less than 80 members, a level previously designated by religious affairs officials as the threshold for compulsory membership in the state-run Protestant group, the Three-Self Patriotic Association.

Yutai raid

Meanwhile, a similar group in Yutai county had met with similar treatment on May 28 after it offered a Bible study group for local youth, local sources said.

"They were running a youth group to teach them about the Bible," the pastor of the Yutai church group, who gave only his surname Zhou, said. "This was for the children of our local [fellow worshipers], and most of them have already attended our meetings."

Zhou said three of the group's organizers were fined 3,500 yuan (U.S. $570) by police and warned against making an official complaint or talking to the overseas media.

"They locked them up for two days and took away their camera," he said, adding that the group had been forced to pay the fine before police would release the three.

He said some of the Yutai group's membership had gone to join Three-Self services, following a campaign of official pressure to register unofficial Christian believers nationwide.

Last month, an annual religious freedom report by the U.S. State Department said that religious freedom continued to decline in China last year.

China’s government emphasized state control over religion and restricted the activities of religious adherents, especially where state or Chinese Communist Party interests were threatened, including the Party’s concept of social stability, the report said.

Protestants and Catholics practicing outside of state-controlled churches came in for particular scrutiny, said the report, as did members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and smaller groups called “evil cults” by China’s government.

Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.

Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.