China's atheist ruling Communist Party remains uneasy about the public celebration of Christmas, placing restrictions on events to mark the festival, which is seen by the powers that be as a dangerous foreign import, Christians told RFA in recent interviews.
In the eastern province of Zhejiang, which has a large Protestant population, a hotel was forced to cancel two Christmas services planned by local churches on its premises after it received a warning from the government.
A Protestant "house church" had reserved the conference hall at the Chaowang Hotel in Zhejiang's provincial capital, Hangzhou, staff and religious rights activists said.
"We can't host these sorts of activities, because now there are very tight restrictions in place," an employee who answered the phone at the Chaowang Hotel told RFA.
"We are unable to host such meetings for the time being, and any that have been previously booked will have to be canceled," the employee said. "We're not doing them any more, because anything religious is too sensitive."
According to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, the hotel had been directly ordered by local officials not to host any religious activities, in spite of the fact that the same church had used the venue for Christmas services in previous years.
The move to stop the house church from meeting follows a prolonged cross demolition program in the past year or so by authorities in Zhejiang province.
Authorities in Zhejiang have recently moved to prevent unofficial "house churches" from meeting, and have also banned all forms of religious activity in hospitals, in an ongoing crackdown targeting the region's burgeoning Protestant Christian community.
'Hostile Western forces'
The demolition of "illegal" Christian crosses from the roofs of churches came amid growing resistance from local believers, but was billed as a civic pride and building safety campaign in official media.
Zhejiang has been lauded by the party's ideological arm, the United Front Work Department, for "tackling ... the difficult-to-tackle problems, grasping norms, strong management and promoting harmony and stability," according to a report on the official website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Meanwhile, the authorities view many forms of religion as dangerous foreign imports, with Zhejiang officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, said the government takes similar actions to clamp down on Christian worship annually around Christmas.
"They have been holding their services in this hotel for more than a decade, because the government doesn't allow religious gatherings in public places," Zhang said.
"They use public safety and national security as an excuse for the ban, but they're not talking about the safety and security of the general public; they mean the safety and security of their regime, of the Communist Party," he said.
Beijing-based Protestant pastor Xu Yonghai, who heads the Beijing Sheng'ai Protestant Family Church Fellowship, said a nationwide crackdown on unofficial Christian worship has brought more Protestant believers under the watchful gaze of the state in recent years.
"At the beginning of the 1990s, the house churches would take out a lease on their place of worship, or hire out various venues for their Christmas celebrations," Xu said.
"Back then, it was all done on the quiet, and the police would order the venue not to host the event if they found out about it," he said.
"Nowadays, there's less overall interference from the police, but this sort of thing still happens; it has happened to us, too," he said.
New wave of 'heavy pressure'
ChinaAid quoted a Zhejiang-based Christian surnamed Hu as saying that the cross-demolition program in the province had heralded a new wave of "heavy pressure" from the government, however.
A member of another Hangzhou-based house church, Chongyitang, said they hoped their Christmas plans would still go ahead, however.
"We have services every year on Dec. 21, 23, 24 and 25," she said. "We preach the gospel, it's church, not just a meeting."
"We are evangelists, so we are open to new members."
Meanwhile, police in the central province of Henan have broadcast a message on the smartphone chat app WeChat calling on all colleges and universities in Shangqiu city to crack down on any form of Christmas activities, ChinaAid said.
"This highlights the ignorant and obstinate attitude of the authorities towards Christianity and universal civilization," the group said.
"Our organization strongly condemns the Chinese government's violation of freedom of religious belief," it said.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.