Beijing police arrested dozens of Christian worshipers yesterday from a “house church” — one not formally recognized by the government — when they tried to pray outdoors, a rights group said. They sang hymns and said prayers as police loaded them onto waiting buses in Beijing’s western Hai-dian District, the US-based Christian rights group China Aid said in a statement, citing witnesses.
“The Beijing authorities have again demonstrated their total disregard of their citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to religious freedom,” China Aid founder and president Bob Fu (傅希秋) said in the statement.
Police declined to comment when contacted and requested written questions be faxed to them.
The New York Times reported that one if its photographers was among those detained, but was later released.
China Aid said more than 100 were detained, but the newspaper said “dozens” of people were held.
The US and the UN have expressed serious concerns in the past week at a growing crackdown across China in which artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals have been detained.
The church incident comes a week after Ai Weiwei (艾未未), an outspoken artist who helped design the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games, was detained for unspecified “economic crimes.”
The church tried to hold services in the open air after it was evicted from a rented space because the landlord was pressured to not renew the lease, China Aid said.
Shouwang, one of Beijing’s largest house churches, invited its members to meet yesterday morning at an open air public platform linking the SinoSteel Building and the South China Poetic Restaurant building, China Aid said.
Some of the detainees were taken to a nearby elementary school where authorities took down their names and other details, the statement said.
Several church leaders were called to their local police stations on Saturday, with some spending the night in detention, while others were told they were not permitted to leave their homes yesterday, the statement said.
China only allows religious worship in state-approved churches.
Organizers of underground churches are routinely sent to labor camps without trial.
Meanwhile, the government has called on organizers of an annual series of inter-university debates on the meaning of the 1911 revolution to cancel the event amid fears of unrest in the country, a Hong Kong newspaper reported yesterday.
The ban, ordered by the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Communist Youth League on Friday, was the first since the event was launched in 2002, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. The debates were scheduled to commence on Saturday.
The move comes amid a nationwide crackdown on dissidents calling for a “Jasmine Revolution” and political liberalization in China.
Sixteen universities, including top institutions of learning like Peking University, Renmin University of China and Tianjin University, were to take part in the debates, the SCMP said. Beijing’s keen sensitivity to the political threat of mass mobilization is believed to have been the principal reason behind the decision to cancel the event.
Wen Yunchao (溫雲超), a -Guangzhou-based blogger better known as Beifeng (北風, or “North Wind”), told the paper that the timing of the event, the nature of its participants and the topics for debate were very sensitive in the eyes of the authorities.
“The competition was to take place on weekends and a group of university students were going to debate topics related to democracy and revolution,” Wen said.
Organizers said this year’s debates were meant to encourage students to review the 1911 revolution, also known as the Xinhai Revolution, and its effects on contemporary China and to focus on the Three Principles of the People expounded by Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) — nationalism, democracy and livelihood.
The event’s Web site said: “Let us reassess this part of the history against the backdrop of its 100th anniversary,” adding that aside from looking at the “exciting victories” of the revolution, students should also look at “what is hidden beneath — the awakening of people’s awareness in this country and the spread of democracy.”
Zhang Ming (張明), a professor of politics at Renmin who was among the judges selected to oversee the competition, said Beijing had hoped to use the centenary of the revolution as a means to engage Taiwan, which will also be holding activities to celebrate the occasion.
While the authorities were unlikely to cancel all celebrations, they would avoid sensitive issues such as democracy and revolution while emphasizing patriotism, Zhang said, adding that to maintain social stability, Beijing was even willing to sacrifice engagement with Taiwan.
For the students, who were reportedly disappointed at the sudden turn of events, Beijing’s latest move comes in the wake of tightened control in university areas in Beijing to prevent students from heeding calls for political rallies. Part of those efforts include a program at Peking University to identity “radical students” and dispatch them to “meetings” with campus administrators, the SCMP said.
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