The U.S. State Department has hit out at the recent detentions of members of a large Protestant church in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, against a background of ever-widening religious persecution.
Dozens of churchgoers and seminary students from the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu have been detained in a police raid on the church, which was shut down by the authorities earlier this year.
Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong were among those detained in night raids on people's homes, according to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid.
"The massive overnight attack against members of the independent, renowned Early Rain Covenant Church represents a major escalation of religious persecution in China," group president Bob Fu said in a statement.
Fu said the administration of President Xi Jinping is "deliberately making itself the enemy of universal values, such as religious freedom for all."
Samuel D. Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said in a recent briefing that China, which has incarcerated an estimated one million Uyghurs and other minority ethnic Muslims in "re-education camps" in its northwestern Xinjiang region, is home to "one of the ... worst human rights situations in the world."
"It’s a very bad situation for a religious community," Brownback said. "Just yesterday, the Early Rain Church – news was coming out in Chengdu – it was raided, a number of people arrested."
He said Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists have all been subjected to persecution, resulting in frequent self-immolations among Tibetans in protest at the ruling Chinese Communist Party's actions, and that persecution of faith communities appears to be on the rise.
"My particular concern now for China is they’ve increased these actions of persecution against faith communit[ies]," Brownback said, citing reports that between 800,000 to two million minority Muslims are now held in Xinjiang's camps.
"China isn’t backing away from the religious persecution; it seems to be expanding. This is obviously very troubling to the administration," he said.
An Early Rain church member said the church premises in Jiangxin Mansions on Chengdu's Taisheng North Road were surrounded on Saturday night by several hundred people, including police, who then sealed off the premises.
"Over the past few days, starting last Saturday and continuing until this Tuesday, there have been several raids targeting the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu," the church member said. "It's been really awful."
"More than 100 people have been taken away, and they are still detaining people," he said. "Pastor Wang has been detained, and I haven't heard from him."
An officer who answered the phone at the nearby Qingyang district police department declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday.
"Sorry, we can't give interviews here," the officer said.
'Stirring up trouble'
A church member surnamed Zheng said Wang is being held under criminal detention on suspicion of "running an illegal business" and "illegal publishing," while some detainees are being held on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
"Some people have returned home, although it's not clear what their situation is, and they remain under surveillance," she said. "All of the church leaders have been detained ... only a few regular church members are left."
Last May, the church was targeted after members gathered for a memorial service on the 10th anniversary of the devastating 2008 earthquake.
China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight control over any form of religious practice among its citizens.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.