Beijing officials have shut down one of China’s largest “underground” Protestant churches for operating without a license, the government’s latest move to ramp up control over religious worship.
About 70 officials stormed into the Zion Church — housed on the third floor of a nondescript office building in the north of the capital — after its afternoon service on Sunday, church Pastor Ezra Jin Mingri (金明日) said yesterday.
“They chased everyone out and sealed off the place, even tearing down our signage on the wall,” Jin said. “All our things have been confiscated and we have not been allowed to re-enter the building.”
The local civil affairs bureau said the church and its affiliates have been banned.
“After investigation, [we found] the ‘Zion Church in Beijing’ was not registered and carried out activities in the name of social organizations without authorization,” the Chaoyang district civil affairs bureau said in a statement.
Jin was among about 200 pastors from underground churches who put their name to a petition complaining of “assault and obstruction” by the government — including the tearing down of crosses — since new religious regulations came into effect in February.
Zion was one of the largest “house” churches in Beijing, with up to 1,500 people attending its weekly services.
At least a dozen marked police vehicles and scores of officers in uniform and plainclothes yesterday were guarding the building where the congregation held its services.
Journalists were barred from entering the building. The officers said the third floor was sealed off.
News of Zion’s closure came after Bob Fu (傅希秋) of the US-based China Aid group said over the weekend that the closure of churches in Henan Province and actions taken against Zion in recent weeks represented a “significant escalation” of the government’s crackdown on Christian congregations.
The campaign corresponds with a drive to “Sinicize” religion by demanding loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and eliminating any challenge to its power over people’s lives.
“The international community should be alarmed and outraged for this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief,” Fu wrote in an e-mail to reporters.
Fu also provided video footage of what appeared to be piles of burning Bibles and forms stating that the signatories had renounced their Christian faith.
He said that marked the first time since Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution that Christians had been compelled to make such declarations, under pain of expulsion from school and the loss of welfare benefits.
A Christian pastor in Nanyang, Henan Province, said crosses, Bibles and furniture were burned during a raid on his church on Wednesday.
The pastor, who asked not to be identified by name to avoid repercussions from authorities, said several people entered the church just as it opened its doors at 5am and began removing items.
He said the church had been in discussions with local authorities who demanded it “reform” itself, but no agreement had been reached or official documents released.
A local official reached by telephone at the Nanyang City Government disputed the account, saying officials respected religious freedom.
The man declined to give his name, as is common with Chinese bureaucrats, while a person answering phones at the local religious affairs bureau said they were “not clear” about the matter.
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