By Jo Ling Kent, CNN April 24, 2011 3:48 a.m. EDT
Beijing (CNN) — The site of a planned outdoor Easter service at one of China’s largest independent “house” churches was eerily silent Sunday as police blocked more than 500 worshippers from leaving their homes and detained more than 36 for attempting to attend religious services in Beijing, church officials said.
The gathering place for worshippers was empty as church-like bells sounded in northwest Beijing. Hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed police officers swarmed the site of Shouwang Church and prevented CNN journalists from accessing the area.
Authorities confiscated credentials from CNN crew members and detained them for half an hour.
Worshippers spent several months preparing for the Easter service, according to members who spoke with CNN. Police on the scene told CNN they were stationed there for “security reasons.”
Shouwang Church’s senior pastor Jin Tianming is currently under house arrest by the authorities.
“More police have come to stand watch in front of my door in anticipation of Easter,” Jin told CNN in a phone interview. “I’ve spoken to several of my fellow worshippers who attempted to attend our planned service this morning,” but some were detained, Jin said.
“But we will not change our plans. We will not change our decision to worship as this is a matter of faith,” Jin said.
A few worshippers were seen praying with bowed heads near Shouwang’s proposed site for the service, but the site itself was sealed off by law enforcement. Vigilant plainclothes officers filmed passersby.
Shouwang means “to keep watch” in Mandarin.
Usually hundreds of worshippers gather at this illegal “house” — or unofficial — church, which is one of the largest Christian gathering places in the country. Shouwang Church is an unregistered Christian group that was forced outdoors after authorities blocked the rental of its previous office space in November, the church said. It has not been able to obtain a new location since.
“This is the worst time in terms of religious freedom across the board in two decades,” said Bob Fu, a former independent church pastor and founder of the non-governmental organization China Aid. Fu has been speaking with Shouwang worshippers unable to attend the service.
“[Worshippers] are not a threat to stability, not a threat to society, and not a threat to China’s harmonious society,” Fu said. “By cracking down on these hundreds of thousands of worshippers, it will only create the opposite effect. To the churches, I would encourage them to stand firm.”
Over the past month, more than 200 Shouwang churchgoers have been arrested and detained, according to the church. The leaders of the church remain under house arrest amid a wider government crackdown on dissidents throughout China over the past three months. Calls to local police regarding their exact violations went unreturned.
Shouwang Church representatives had vowed to defy Communist government mandates to cancel outdoor public services on Easter Sunday. According to a notice from the Governing Committee of Shouwang Church on Saturday evening, the outdoor worship service location would remain the same despite pressure from authorities.
On Shouwang’s Google Buzz page, Jin warned that police would likely detain those gathering at a set meeting site but that it was important that members stood up for their faith.
“Each believer may act in accordance to his or her own faith, whether to be taken away quietly (by police) or to meet in a nearby location,” the statement read.
The number of practicing Christians in China is disputed. Recent official data states there are approximately 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worshipping at official churches in China, but unofficial estimates are as high as 130 million.
Authorities have cracked down hard on dissidents, activists and rights lawyers since anonymous Internet calls emerged in February for regular “Jasmine” protests. Prominent artist Ai Weiwei has been detained for approximately three weeks by police.
Sunday’s worship ban came just days before an annual human rights dialogue between U.S. and Chinese diplomats scheduled for later this week in Beijing.
CNN’s Stan Grant contributed to this report.