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Asia

Underground worshipers wary in China

Members of underground churches in China are wary as Chinese authorities have been intensifying the clampdown on dissidents and non-conformists.

Christians in China attending a church service

Churches have to register in China

The Shouwang Church is one of the biggest unregistered churches in Beijing. For years, the church was tolerated silently by the authorities. But a few weeks ago, the government prohibited the Shouwang Church from renting the room in which they had held services. After that, it became impossible for the church to find other locations for worship. So the church took its services outside. Two weeks ago, members of the church met in a park in China’s capital Beijing to worship.

The choir of Shouwang church sing hymns during a Sunday service on March 14, 2010. Shouwang church is a house church in Haidian district, Beijing

There are more than 50,000 Christians in China's capital Beijing and many prefer house churchs

The authorities reacted instantly. The police detained church members, but released them after a short while. Now the church pastors are under constant surveillance. The arrests of Christians in Beijing has shocked believers across China, says Daniel Ottenberg, head of the human rights organization "Open Doors," which is fighting for Christians who are being persecuted. "The thing is, no one knows who is going to be next. If the government is coming down so hard on one church in Beijing without there being a good reason, what will happen to the other congregations?" Ottenberg adds that up to this point, churches located in rural area had been the main targets of state repression.

Police officers watch over an area where members of an underground church had planned to gather for worship in Beijing Sunday, April 17, 2011.

Many members of the Shouwang church were arrested for congregating outside

Wary of the authorities

The crackdown on the Shouwang Church comes at a time when the Chinese government is clamping down harder on dissidents and non-conformists. Apparently, the powers that be in Beijing are afraid that revolutions like the ones in the Arab world could break out in China as well. Earlier this month the detention of artist and government critic, Ai Weiwei, triggered international outrage.

Because of the repressive atmosphere, a lot of people are feeling uneasy, says Daniel Ottenberg. "Christians are worried and they are asking themselves, 'are we going to be able to worship? and if yes, where?'" Many people now fear that the security forces will come for them and their churches.

No crowds

A service in a Chinese church

There are more members of underground churches than of registered ones

Although the Chinese constitution protects religious freedom, religious groups in China must register and put themselves under the supervision of the state. Around 15 million people in China are members of registered Protestant churches, another five million belong to the registered Catholic Church. But of the estimated 50 million Christians in China, it is believed the majority congregate in unregistered, so-called house or underground churches.

These churches refuse to register in order to avoid state control. But they are seen as a threat says Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Catholic Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong. "The government is afraid of organized groups. The Catholic Church and also the Protestant churches are very well organized. The government in general is afraid of mass gatherings, whether they are religious or not."

Despite the arrests of its members, the Shouwang Church plans to keep having services outdoors. On the internet, the church has warned its members that the police might arrest them during such services. But the congregation has also encouraged its members to ignore the government’s threats and to stand up for their beliefs.

Autor: Christoph Ricking (zer)
Editor: Sarah Berning

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