China Detains Worshipers Over Praying in Public

New York Times  

By ANDREW JACOBS and SHARON LaFRANIERE  Published: April 10, 2011
BEIJING — The police detained more than 100 members of an underground Protestant church on Sunday after the congregation tried to pray in a public plaza in the north of the capital.
The raid on the church, which sought to pray outside after it was evicted from its building under government pressure, was part of a broad crackdown on dissent over the last seven weeks. The campaign has led to the jailing of scores of rights lawyers, writers and activists, as well as the repression of unauthorized worship.

The authorities have also clamped down on less obvious threats, canceling events as diverse as a St. Patrick’s Day parade and a collegiate debate tournament this weekend.
The Protestant church, Shouwang, was evicted last week from the space it was renting after the government pressured the landlord not to renew the lease. The congregation, whose 1,000 members make it one of the largest unregistered churches in China, has been seeking legal recognition since 2006.
According to church members, the pastor, the Rev. Jin Tianming, church leaders and scores of other parishioners were blocked by the police from leaving their homes on Sunday. Others were seized as they emerged from the subway station at Zhongguangcun Plaza, where the services were to be held.
By 8 a.m., hundreds of police officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, swarmed the area. They questioned passers-by and corralled church members onto buses.
At one point, a group of plainclothes police officers kicked and beat a group of four young people. As one of the buses pulled away, the congregants pulled out a prayer sheet and began to sing.
Church leaders said 169 people were detained throughout the day, with most taken to a nearby elementary school, where they were briefly questioned and photographed; most were released later in the day, although church leaders said that at least three people, including a pastor, were still being held as of Monday morning. A man who answered the phone at the Haidian police station, several blocks from the site of the planned prayer service, refused to answer questions about the detentions.
After years of tolerance by religious authorities, unregistered churches have faced pressure to either disband or join the system of state-controlled congregations. The government first forced Shouwang out of its rented quarters in 2008. In 2009, the church paid $4.1 million for a floor in an office building but the owner, under pressure from the authorities, has refused to hand over the keys. Until last week, the church had been meeting in a restaurant.
The church made no secret of its plans to gather outdoors, announcing the service on the Internet. During his final sermon last week, Mr. Jin warned his congregants they would likely meet resistance. “At this time, the challenges we face are massive,” he said. “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.”
The canceled debate tournament was to have drawn students from 16 universities to the Beijing Institute of Technology, where they were to have wrangled over the topic of China’s 1911 revolution. The revolution against the Qing Dynasty, which helped cement Sun Yatsen’s reputation as the founding father of modern China, may not seem controversial at first blush.
But authorities might have been concerned about the organizers’ statement on the tournament’s Web site, urging students to recognize not only “the inspirational revolutionary victory, but what is hidden deeper beneath: the awakening of the awareness of this country’s people and the dissemination of a system of democracy.”
The Web site also encouraged students to “think deeper about nationalism, democracy and livelihood, to continue to blaze new trails in a pioneering spirit, to keep fighting for the renovation and development of the nation.”
Zhang Ming, a judge for the competition and a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said the municipal Communist Youth League committee ordered organizers to cancel the event on Friday evening, a day before the opening debate.
“Everyone was pretty disappointed,” Mr. Zhang said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “This is really hateful for them to do. The organizers said they tried to negotiate with the committee, but they couldn’t change the decision.”
Xiyun Yang and Mia Li contributed research.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 11, 2011, on page A4 of the New York edition.

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