Authorities in the Chinese capital have shut down a large Protestant church that had been continuing to meet since a similar raid several years ago, a church member and an international Christian group said.
"Pastor Zhang Xiaofeng of Shouwang Church was leading a Bible study class on Saturday afternoon," a Shouwang member surnamed Zhou told RFA. "The new premises were a little larger, and could accommodate more people, but they were raided."
"Everyone was taken to the Caihefang Primary School, then sent to their local police stations to make a statement and give their details," Zhou said.
More than 30 police officers and government officials raided the Bible school class, and demanded that the church cease all activities immediately, the rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) said on its website.
"The authorities demanded the church to cease its activities immediately and read out an official document formally banning the church," the ICC statement said.
Police also demanded that Pastor Zhang Xiaofeng sign and keep a document claiming that the church "has conducted activities as a social organization without registration, which is in violation of Regulations of Religious Affairs and Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations," it said.
Nineteen Bible class students were taken to a nearby school and questioned by authorities, while other church members meeting at the Xiwu International Community residential area were brought to the same location and interrogated, ICC and Shouwang members said. Zhang Xiaofeng was among those detained for questioning, Shouwang sources told RFA.
All those detained were asked to sign a letter of guarantee that they would no longer attend Shouwang activities, but refused to do so. They were sent home by police from their local police stations after being held for several hours.
‘Same as back in 2011’
Meanwhile, officials changed the locks on two properties being used by the church to prevent members from returning, ICC said.
Zhou said the crackdown was similar to a previous operation targeting Shouwang back in 2011.
"Basically, it was the same as back in 2011, except that ... Pastor Jin Tianming retired and Zhang Xiaofeng took over from him," he said.
Shouwang Church is one of the largest unofficial Protestant "house churches" in Beijing, and is attended by more than 1,000 people, the ICC said.
It was targeted in 2011 for its refusal to join the ruling Chinese Communist Party-backed Three Self Protestant Association, which overseas official churches.
"Its senior pastor, Jin Tianming, and two other pastors have been under house arrest ever since and its purchased property is still confiscated by the Chinese government," the group said.
Shouwang Church issued a statement to its members saying it rejects the decision to ban the church, reminding everyone that the legality of the church is not determined by any religious or administrative agencies.
It said the church will continue to meet and operate in different ways and at different venues in future.
ICC regional manager Gina Goh called the ongoing crackdown on religious believers by the administration of President Xi Jinping "deplorable."
"Christians outside of the state-sanctioned churches can no longer worship without fearing harassment, detention, or even imprisonment," Goh said. "Even official churches face increasing pressure to exalt the Communist Party over God."
Raids on other churches
Local authorities in a number of cities across China raided churches last December in a bid to prevent them from celebrating Christmas.
Police and religious affairs officials from the municipal government raided the premises of the Early Rain Covenant Church in the southwestern city of Chengdu early on Monday morning, confiscating bibles, books, computers and other materials.
They changed the locks on the premises, and sealed them up with police tape. The raid comes after police detained more than 50 church members, including Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong.
On Dec. 16, several police officers broke into a house church in Hohhot, saying it was carrying out unauthorized religious activities in violation of recently updated rules on religious activities.
And in the southern province of Guangdong, several house churches had been prevented from holding any services during the Christmas period, according to a Dongguan-based church member surnamed Wang.
Local governments across China are targeting independent churches following the newly amended subsequent dissent from such churches over state control of religious practices.
Officials have required that video surveillance equipment be installed in churches and members' information be handed over, while banning the sale of Bibles online, and demolishing churches or visible crosses in some areas of China, rights groups say.
Early Rain pastors were among more than 100 Protestant pastors who complained about the new policies in a public statement in September.
The church's pastor, Wang Yi, currently criminally detained on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," is a former Chengdu University professor, and has been outspoken in defense of religious freedom in China, including for Tibetans Buddhists and Muslims in Xinjiang.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.