HONG KONG - Police in China have arrested four members of an underground church after they gathered in Beijing to worship in public and request the return of their church property.
Sources tell VOA the four members of the Shouwang Church have been sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention after being arrested Sunday for “disturbing public order.”
Authorities in the Chinese capital have not offered comment on the arrests.
According to the overseas religious rights group China Aid, the Shouwang Church has long been harassed by the government.
The church lost its indoor meeting place in 2011 when its landlord prematurely terminated their lease under government pressure.
Since then, church members have been forced to worship outdoors in the nearby neighborhood, but are often harassed, ordered by police to disperse, or even sometimes arrested. The church’s pastor and founder, Jin Tianming, is under house arrest.
Xu Yonghai, the pastor of the underground Divine Love Fellowship Christian Church in Beijing, told VOA Thursday that Chinese authorities have intensified pressure on house churches.
“The Beijing Shouwang Church is relatively large. It has more than 1,000 members. They are forced to worship outside, in public. Each time, people are arrested. It is said the police used to take them to the police station and release them, now they are held in detention," he said.
The so-called "house churches" or “family churches” refer to churches organized by Chinese without government approval. Because they often have no place of worship, members often hold meetings in private homes, hence the name "house churches."
Pastor Xu said even official churches that are approved by the government are being suppressed.
“Since last year, the local government in China’s southern Zhejiang Province has ordered churches to remove crosses from church buildings, most of them are official churches. We don’t understand why it is happening. It doesn’t make sense. Official churches are under the leadership of the communist party. Many of the church leaders are members of the communist party. Why suppress even them?”
According to China Aid, the religious rights group, more than 1,500 crosses in Zhejiang Province have either been demolished or removed against church protests. In the process, some church members and their lawyers have been arrested.
The local government accuses the churches of illegal construction and says they are requiring them to demolish their crosses to compile with building codes.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service.