By Eunice Yoon, CNN
Beijing, China (CNN) – The congregants were seated in rows of folding chairs, clasping their hands in prayer or studying passages in their Bibles.
The choir was sitting up front ready to sing on cue. A cross hung behind the pastor. The service looked like a Christian service you would see pretty much anywhere else in the world. But this is Beijing, and the recent Sunday service was illegal.
I couldn’t stop glancing at the door and wonder – are the authorities on their way?
This must be the feeling the people in informal churches here have lived with for decades, I thought.
In China, the government allows religious activity but tightly controls it, requiring Christians to meet at state-approved churches. Many Chinese Christians prefer to worship on their own terms at “house” churches, which generally start as small prayer meetings in people’s homes.
In recent years, the authorities have tolerated these underground churches. In fact, the parishioners CNN spoke to seemed unfazed by their church’s illegal status.
However, Pastor Ezra Jin, the leader of Zion Church, said these churches are now under tremendous pressure – in the midst of China’s crackdown on dissent here in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“We are at a critical moment,” he said. “What we need is communication.”
House churches, he said, cannot afford to stay silent – one of the reasons he granted CNN rare access to film in his banned church.
Jin is concerned that China’s underground churches could become targets of jittery authorities like one of Beijing’s biggest house churches, Shouwang. Over the past several months, Shouwang’s members have been routinely detained and its leaders put under house arrest.
The government defended its actions, saying the congregants were repeatedly gathering illegally in the streets.
Jin finds the development troubling. He and over a dozen other house church leaders have filed a petition to top Communist Party officials calling for greater religious freedoms.
He fears that without dialogue, underground churchgoers could face a fate similar to practitioners of another – heavily persecuted – spiritual group.
“Shouwang’s case could deteriorate into a massive crackdown if not handled properly,” he said. “We are trying to send a message to remind the Communist Party leaders not to inflame this incident, not to tackle it the way they did the Falun Gong.”
The government officially allows freedom of religion but has long been wary of churches, suspicious they could be a source of opposition.
Pastor Jin doesn’t see himself as a threat. He hopes his decision to speak up will foster understanding – and possibly lead to legal recognition of house churches without the government controls.
“We are very aware of what we are doing,” he said. “And we are ready to pay the price.”
He is a man of God now emboldened despite, or perhaps because of, the Chinese government’s heavy hand.