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Defiant China church vows to hold Easter service

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) April 22, 2011
Leaders of a beleaguered Chinese evangelical church have vowed to defy Communist authorities and hold outdoor public services on Easter Sunday, raising the prospect of a confrontation with police.

The defiant stance of the Shouwang Church, one of Beijing's biggest unofficial Christian groups, comes amid a severe crackdown on government critics that has seen scores of people detained, disappeared or facing charges.

"As Easter is a very important day for us we must stick to our decision to worship outdoors," senior Pastor Jin Tianming told AFP by phone from his Beijing home, where he has been under house arrest.

"This is our uncompromising position and a matter of faith. If they arrest our followers, this is the price we are willing to pay," he said.

Authorities evicted Shouwang from its previous place of worship, a rented office space, in November and blocked the congregation of about 1,000 people from entering new premises purchased with church funds, Jin said.

China's officially atheist government has long frowned on religion and imposes controls on faith by requiring groups to register for government approval to gather, despite an official policy stipulating religious freedom.

Shouwang, which means "to keep watch", was established in 1993 and has sought government registration since 2006, Jin said, but has been repeatedly refused.

On April 10, nearly 170 church followers were rounded up by police after trying to hold a Sunday outdoor worship service in western Beijing's Haidian university district. Nearly 50 were detained a week later.

Most followers were released after up to 24 hours in custody.

The US government has repeatedly criticised China's overall rights crackdown, while the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an autonomous government board, this week condemned the actions against Shouwang.

"Beijing has again responded with ruthless intolerance to peaceful religious activity," Leonard Leo, chair of the commission, said in a statement that also urged China to stop detaining members and allow Easter services.

Jin said that all church leaders are currently under house arrest and will likely be unable to leave their homes on Sunday.

But, using fiery religious imagery, they are urging followers in online messages to sacrifice themselves as Christ did in the fight against government persecution.

Shouwang was in a fight with the devil for freedom of religion, Jin wrote to the faithful last weekend.

"The devil Satan has taken advantage of the authority God has granted to the national government and is seeking to destroy God's church," Jin said.

"His devil's claws have finally been revealed. Satan get thee behind me!"

On Monday, church pastor Yuan Ling called on Shouwang members to sacrifice themselves to "appease the wrath of God".

"The courage that we sacrifice becomes the peace between the oppressor and the oppressed," Yuan said in a posting on Google Buzz, a micro-blogging site, where the church has set up a forum after their website was shut down in China.

Authorities have cracked down hard on dissidents, activists and rights lawyers since anonymous Internet appeals emerged in February calling for "Jasmine" protests each Sunday around the country.

The campaign was aimed at sparking public calls for government reform similar to those that have rocked the Arab world, but no public demonstrations have been reported in China.

In his online appeal, Jin said Shouwang had "no links to this Jasmine revolution".

Pastor Yuan Ling said Shouwang's "sole desire is that we can awaken the conscience of our rulers through our peaceful and holy action of sacrifice."

"Only in this way can we really love our government," he added.

It remains to be seen how many will show up at the Sunday worship site in an outdoor square in western Beijing's university district. Several members declined to discuss their plans with AFP, citing the sensitivities.

Beijing police have refused to comment to AFP on the issue.

But in numerous Internet postings, other unregistered Christians in China voiced support for the Shouwang church and urged Protestants to gather.

About 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worship at official churches in China, according to recent official data.

But an estimated more than 50 million others are believed to pray at "underground" or "house" churches like Shouwang which refuse to submit to government regulation.

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