- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

BEIJING — Hundreds of Chinese police clashed with thousands of “underground” Christians over the demolition of a church that was deemed to be an illegal structure.

Up to 500 police officers forced back as many as 3,000 Christians who had gathered at the weekend to stage a peaceful demonstration against the state’s demolition of the church in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

More than 20 Christians were injured in the clashes Saturday, and five organizers of the protest were arrested, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Its spokesman, Frank Liu, said the unregistered church was being rebuilt by locals after it was destroyed last year by a typhoon.

As news spread that a demolition crew had been sent in, demonstrators massed at the construction site. Police were called in, leading to clashes.

A police officer involved in the incident acknowledged that the clash occurred but denied that any Christians had been arrested.

“It is clear that this church was an illegal structure. It did not have the approval of the religious affairs bureau or the government,” the officer said.

“The church had to be destroyed. They can explain their demands, but if they are in violation of public order, laws and regulations, we will deal with them in accordance with the law,” he said.

China maintains tight control over religious affairs and requires all faith communities — whether Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim or Christian — to register and carry out their activities according to strict and often-changed guidelines.

There are an estimated 80 million Christians praying outside the state-regulated church. At Christmas and Easter, elevators and stairwells of public-housing complexes are packed with smartly dressed Christians on their way to a service at a “house church.”

Last year, President Bush attended one of Beijing’s five officially recognized Protestant churches during a visit to the country. He wrote in the visitors’ book: “God Bless China’s Christians.”

“This latest incident proves that despite the odd overture toward more freedom of expression and the building of a harmonious society, China’s leaders will use force to crack down on unsanctioned religion,” said Mark Allison, a spokesman for Amnesty International in Hong Kong.

Although Beijing has been battling with the Vatican for decades and appointing its own priests, it is also struggling to rein in new and growing religious movements that have attracted millions of new followers in recent years.

The most prominent target has been the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which was banned in 1999 as a threat to public safety and communist rule. Its worshippers say they are regularly tortured.

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