Religious rights groups in the United States say the decision by Chinese authorities on Sunday to detain nearly 40 members of an unapproved evangelical Christian church as they tried to hold Easter service highlights the struggle for freedom of religion in China.
Although China's constitution allows for freedom of religion in state sanctioned churches, religious rights advocates say government persecution of so-called "underground" or "house" churches, like Sunday's crackdown on the Shouwang Church in Beijing, is increasing.
Mark Shan is a spokesman for ChinaAid, a rights group that tracks cases of religious persecution in China. "In the past five years, every year, the degree of persecution increased, from the perspective of how many church's were persecuted, how many Christians were arrested, sentenced, abused or tortured. So it's a national phenomenon; it's a common phenomenon. Every year is like this," he said.
Members of the Shouwang Church say more than 500 members of the congregation were also put under house arrest. It's unclear, however, whether any of those detained or under house arrest will face formal charges.
Mark Shan says the crackdown is not limited to Beijing. "From Henan, Shandong province this month, even Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, the crackdown has never stopped and it is more serious than last year," he said.
According to official Chinese government statistics, about 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worship at registered churches. Experts say an estimated 50 million others are believed to pray at so-called "underground" or "house" churches like Shouwang, which refuse to submit to government regulation.
Joseph Kung of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a group that monitors the treatment of Roman Catholics in China, says that although the Chinese economy is booming, such advances have done little to slow the persecution of Catholics in the country. "There are people still in jail, and priests still in jail. Bishops are still in jail, we do not know where they are. We don't even know whether they are still alive," he said.
Kung, a relative of the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, was referring to Bishop Sue Zhiming and Bishop Shi Enxiang -- two Catholic underground church leaders who disappeared more than 10 years ago.
Kung says members of the underground Catholics constantly struggle to worship discretely in homes across China or in fields to avoid being discovered by authorities. "The police still find them out and once they find them out, without any notice they will just simply barge in and take the priests away, take the parishioners away and sometimes take the sacraments away and so forth. So there really is no freedom for the underground Catholic church in China," he said.
Sunday's crackdown on the Shouwang Church follows a string of detentions of dissidents, activists and human rights lawyers. Authorities in China have been particularly vigilant in recent weeks, following anonymous calls on the Internet for so-called "Jasmine" protests each Sunday.
Joseph Kung says the online calls might have made authorities nervous. "And also I believe that they want to show their independence. But I really can't second guess the mind of the communists. They could do anything they want," he said.
ChinaAid's Mark Shan agrees that the online protest calls might be having an affect. But mostly, he says, Chinese authorities are concerned about the growing influence of house churches.
Last October, the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, invited more than 200 Chinese house church leaders to attend a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.
"So from that time, the Chinese government also many scholars, even Christians ourselves, were surprised to see. Wow! The house church is really something; it is really large scale because you can see the whole country, they can choose 200 delegates to represent the whole house church. So that was something that caused the Chinese government to really panic," said Shan.
In December, Shan says, Chinese authorities launched a crackdown called "Operation Deterrence" against house churches. He says that although the Beijing government eased up in February, when calls for the Jasmine protests grew, it now is intensifying the campaign.