Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong detained 16 Christians and beat up their main preacher in a major urban park after they held a meeting in public about the meaning of Christmas, Christian activists said on Tuesday.
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, the U.S.-based ChinaAid group said in a statement on its website.
However, Cao himself told RFA after his release that the total number detained was 16.
"I was the main person who was injured," Cao said in an interview on Tuesday. "I have an injury to my face, and bruises on my legs...and neck."
Cao said all 16 were released late on Monday.
"I was held for the longest, for 23 hours, while the others were held for about seven hours," he said. "When they were interrogating me, they said I was being held on suspicion of impersonating a religious official and disturbing public order."
"When they let me go, it was with a verbal warning," Cao added.
The raid came as president-in-waiting Xi Jinping made a visit to the city, laying a wreath of flowers at the feet of a bronze statue of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
However, Xi's visit was notably lacking in the usual trappings of high-level Chinese security, with no traffic restrictions in the city during his visit.
Cao said the group had just begun its meeting in one of Shenzhen's parks, when he noticed police in black uniforms begin to approach them.
"There were 100-200 people attending," he said. "They lifted us up, four of them to each person."
Also detained alongside Cao were seven workers at local Christian groups Guan'ai Center and the Meilin Church Gospel Team, ChinaAid said.
Cao, an independent evangelist, has been preaching in Shenzhen for a number of years, and is well-known to several unofficial Protestant "house churches" and their pastors.
Zhao Jianjun, pastor of the unofficial Zhongfu Gangtou church in Shenzhen, which has also been repeatedly harassed by the authorities, said Cao had been preaching about Christmas in Shenzhen's Lizhi Park.
"They were attacked by police from [Shenzhen's] Futian District," he said.
Elsewhere in Guangdong, house church pastor Li Peng said his Dongguan-based group was facing eviction from its premises after police put pressure on their landlord to terminate the lease for their church premises.
"The landlord agreed to give us an extension of three months, which ends on [Thursday]," Li said.
The Christmas period is considered a sensitive time for China's management of its population of unofficial Christian believers.
ChinaAid warned Christians in mainland China not to risk provoking the authorities in the run-up to Christmas.
"With the approach of Christmas, the government's persecution of Christians will escalate," it said. "Therefore, believers need to respond with finesse while continuing to serve faithfully."
'We just keep growing'
According to Henan-based pastor Zhang Mingxuan, who heads the nationwide Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance, Protestants in Nanjing have recently also been detained and questioned by police.
"In the past few days, they have detained a few people from churches in Nanjing who were spreading the good news," Zhang said.
He said those detained were released on the same day.
The Chinese authorities have charged Christian groups with “engaging in illegal religious activities” and have demanded that they register along with other officially sanctioned “patriotic churches.” Many church members have refused to do so.
Zhang said the frequent crackdowns on Christians are unlikely to affect the following of house churches in China, however.
"We have so many Protestants, and so many groups overseas that are closely concerned with the progress of religious freedom in China," he said. "The authorities in mainland China are afraid that we just keep growing, and getting stronger."
"It's normal for believers to get locked up."
House churches, which operate without official registration documents and without the involvement of the local religious affairs bureaus, come in for surveillance and repeated raids, especially in the more rural areas of the country, according to overseas rights groups.
The State Department’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report that reviewed the situation across the globe last year slammed China, saying there was a “marked deterioration” in Beijing’s respect for and protection of religious rights in the world’s most populous nation.
It cited increased restrictions on Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns and clampdowns on religious practices as well as “severe” repression of Muslim Uyghurs in the volatile Xinjiang region.
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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.