- Associated Press - Sunday, April 17, 2011

BEIJING | Nearly 50 members of an underground Beijing church were detained Sunday and its leaders were kept under house arrest as part of a crackdown on the unregistered congregation, a U.S.-based rights group said.

Jin Tianming, pastor of the Shouwang church, was detained by Beijing police Saturday night and released Sunday morning, Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association, a Christian rights group, said in an email.

Mr. Fu said 47 Shouwang members who tried to worship in an open-air public space on Sunday were detained and all the church’s pastors and leaders were under house arrest or in detention. In an earlier statement, Mr. Fu said some church members had lost their homes or jobs amid an official campaign to shut down the church.

While China’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians are required to worship in churches run by state-controlled organizations, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholics.

However, more than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in unregistered “house” churches, compared to about 20 million in the state churches, according to scholars and church activists.

The growth of house churches has accelerated in recent years, producing larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes that gave the movement its name.

Their expansion and growing influence have unsettled China’s rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge Communist authority.

Shouwang members have for years been at odds with Beijing officials over their right to worship.

Tensions escalated this month when the church was evicted from its usual rented place of worship, a Beijing restaurant. Church leaders decided to temporarily hold services in a public space, prompting police to tape off the area and detain anyone who showed up to take part, with nearly 200 people kept at a local school for several hours.

A second attempt at open-air services in northwest Beijing’s Haidian district resulted in Sunday’s 47 detentions. Numerous uniformed and plainclothes police were parked near the office and shopping complex where Shouwang members were supposed to gather. An Associated Press journalist was followed and warned by plainclothes police not to conduct any interviews in the area.

A woman who answered the phone at the Haidian Public Security Bureau referred calls to the bureau’s propaganda department, where the phone rang unanswered. Calls to the Beijing Public Security Bureau also were not answered.