Updated at 4:30 p.m. EST on 2012-08-22
Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui have shut down a Christian summer school run by an unofficial "house church," beating at least one of its members and placing others under "political investigation," a church member said on Wednesday.
The educational camp, which was being run by a Protestant church not formally registered with the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Anhui's Linquan county, had 82 students enrolled from local primary and secondary schools, organizer Lu Gensheng said.
Lu said he was beaten by a government official after the teachers and student volunteers from the camp were taken to the local government office building in nearby Jiangzhai township. "They were swearing at us, and one guy came out and starting beating me; he said he was beating us Christians to see how we liked it," he said.
"It was in the courtyard of the township government, and there were 50 or more officials present...so I ran out of the main gate...where they beat me another time," Lu added.
He said police then bundled him in a car and took him to the township hospital.
The action came as Chinese authorities intensified their harassment of Christians, cracking down on unofficial worship across several Chinese provinces.
Lu said officers from the Linquan county police department, police from Jiangzhai township, and officials from the township government raided the camp at the weekend.
"They burst into our classroom [on Aug. 19] and took all of our teachers and students from a Beijing university to the township government offices," Lu said.
"Everyone was interviewed separately and had to sign [a guarantee statement]," he said. "They also made everyone leave Linquan county immediately, although we told them we hadn't broken any laws."
He said police had warned the church members during their interviews that they were attending an "illegal gathering."
Chinese authorities have recently moved to increase restrictions on the activities of China’s house churches, whose members are estimated to number about 40 million according to government figures.
An officer who answered the phone at the Jiangzhai township police station denied that police had neglected to help Lu during the attack.
"How did we ignore him? We listened, and we dealt with the case," the officer said. "We investigated it."
But he declined to comment further. "This matter has been reported back to the county police department," he said.
Meanwhile, one of the student volunteers who was sent back to Beijing after the raid said that police had stormed into the classroom while he was giving a piano lesson to a student at the camp, which offered revision classes in key academic subjects, as well as cultural activities.
"They burst into the classroom suddenly during a piano lesson," said the student, who asked to remain anonymous. "They didn't knock, and they asked us what we were doing."
"They started filming and taking photographs of all the teaching materials we were using, and then they asked to see our ID," he said. "They told us to go home the very next day."
He said the volunteers had been enrolled by the state-backed Protestant group, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, in Beijing's Weigongcun district, and that their universities had been informed of the raid by Anhui police.
"My school told me that we had been accused of carrying out missionary work elsewhere...and they said we would have to undergo a new political investigation," the student said.
"I don't know what sort of impact this whole affair is going to have on me," he said. "Four of my classmates have already been investigated."
'Three-Self' state church group
Earlier this month, members of an unofficial Christian group in the eastern province of Jiangxi said they had come under strong pressure from local authorities to join the Three-Self church group backed by the Communist Party, and to hand over confidential lists of members.
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. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the names of Linquan county and Jiangzhai township.