As China gears up for tighter curbs on religious activity, particularly among college students, followers of a doomsday sect clashed this week with police in the central city of Zhengzhou after being designated an "evil cult" by the authorities.
The U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid has said the ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to ban any form of missionary work on school and college campuses.
Quoting a recently leaked document from the Party's central committee dated May 15, ChinaAid said the new rule had been sent out to the education ministry, foreign ministry, and police and domestic security departments, among other bodies.
The news came as several hundred members of the Quanneng Shen sect clashed with police after taking to the streets of Zhengzhou's Zaocheng township on Wednesday with banners proclaiming the existence of an all-powerful deity who is coming to save mankind.
Around 40 people were detained during the protests, which saw a number of police cars smashed, according to photographs posted on the Jasmine Revolution website.
"The deputy municipal police chief led a task force to disperse the sect members," said a Zaocheng resident surnamed Zhang. "There was a lot of pushing and shoving in the process."
"The police detained a lot of people and took them away in police vehicles," he said. "There was some fighting between the police and the sect followers, and some police were injured."
Police cars smashed
He said the smashing of the police cars came after some Quanneng members saw their fellow protesters being detained.
"That escalated the situation, and the sect followers attacked the police," Zhang said.
"They also overturned and smashed up police and government vehicles."
The Quanneng sect, which believes that the world will end on Dec. 21, was designated an "evil cult" by the authorities recently after they started distributing leaflets warning of the end of the world.
"They are saying that doomsday is nearly here, and that only those who believe this will be saved," Zhang said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Zaocheng township police station declined to comment.
"I don't know about this, because I wasn't on duty on Wednesday," she said.
"The police officers who dealt with this incident aren't here right now, and I don't have anything to tell you."
Meanwhile, a resident of Zhengzhou city said the sect's followers had also taken to the streets of the city on Tuesday.
"They were handing out leaflets to passers-by," said a Zhengzhou resident surnamed He. "They were trying to force people to stay and hear their lies."
"When they held a rally, they filled the boulevard until the police got there and dispersed them," he said.
"I don't know whether they detained anyone, but the police said they were disturbing public order."
“Evil cult” is a term used by Beijing in its campaign against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, which shook China's leadership with unexpected mass protests of mostly elderly people in the Chinese capital in 1999.
However, the term has also been used in campaigns to outlaw evangelical and charismatic church movements in China.
Earlier this week, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong detained 16 Christians and beat up their main preacher after they held a meeting in a public park about the meaning of Christmas.
Evangelical preacher Cao Nan and eight people with him were detained in a raid on Saturday by nearly 40 officers in Shenzhen, who dragged them off to the local police station, according to ChinaAid.
The Christmas period is considered a sensitive time for China's management of its population of unofficial believers, and overseas groups have warned "house church" members that the government's persecution of Christians will escalate this month.
Difficult to control
Officially an atheist country, China nonetheless has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Meanwhile, a "house church" pastor in Guangdong's Dongguan city surnamed Li said the leaked official document overestimates what is possible in terms of managing people's religious beliefs.
"It's a bit difficult to ban students from religious belief, because they live in rented accommodation when they're not in class, and they hold small meetings [for worship]," Li said.
"There's not much they can do about it," he said, adding that the document is clear proof that China sees religious belief as an unwanted import from overseas, and a form of "infiltration."
"If [our leaders] fear infiltration, then why are they sending their sons and daughters to study overseas?" he said.
"If they don't fear it, then why not allow us to import the good stuff?"
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.