BEIJING — Up to 30 members of a Chinese evangelical church were arrested on Sunday for trying to hold an Easter service in defiance of the officially atheist government, a member of the clergy said.
A large number of police began to gather early Sunday in the Zhongguancun area of Beijing where the Shouwang Church had said it would hold an outdoor service to mark the holiest day of the Christian calendar.
"Between 20 and 30 followers were taken away by police," senior pastor Jin Tianming told AFP by telephone from his home, where he is under house arrest. He said there were several police officers posted outside the building.
He added that the members of the congregation who were arrested had been taken to different police stations and that none had so far been released.
Jin had said before the planned gathering that the church considered Easter an important occasion and would stick to its decision to hold a service.
"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 had said.
Police declined to comment on the arrests when contacted by AFP.
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.
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 communist 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 an outdoor 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, last 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 before Sunday's service that all church leaders were under house arrest and would unlikely be able to leave their homes for the service.
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.
Jin said Shouwang had no links with the calls for "Jasmine" protests.
In numerous Internet postings, other unregistered Christians in China voiced support for the Shouwang church.
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.
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.