Police in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan fired tear-gas canisters at worshipers at a mass outdoor unofficial Christmas service, and moved to detain other members of "house" churches who tried to organize Christian worship elsewhere in the country, according to participants and rights groups.
Sichuan-based church member Li Ming, who attended the Christmas service on a public square in Langzhong city, said police had raided the gathering and detained three people.
"[On Christmas] morning at about 8.00 a.m. our church was holding a Christmas activity on Binjiang Road in Langzhong city," Li said in an interview on Monday.
"There were around 20-30 police officers, and they used tear-gas canisters," he said. "My eyes were so swollen I couldn't see at all."
Li said police had confiscated the group's musical instruments and sound system. "They detained three of our people," he said. "They haven't released them yet."
The move follows the detention of a number of unofficial "house" church members ahead of planned Christmas gatherings across China.
Fellow members of China's unofficial Protestant "house churches" say they continue to be targeted by authorities with detentions, house arrest, and other forms of official pressure.
Hundreds of members of the Shouwang Protestant church have been repeatedly detained by police in Beijing for attending open-air prayer gatherings after the government blocked access to the church's own premises.
The U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid said on Sunday that more than 30 members of Shouwang Church in Beijing were taken into police custody and held at different police stations for persisting in holding outdoor worship services for Christmas.
"The plaza that has been Shouwang’s designated outdoor worship site since April was jam-packed with police, as though they were getting ready for a big battle," the group quoted eyewitnesses as saying.
A Shouwang member surnamed Chen said two busloads of police pulled up at the Shouwang worship site on Sunday, and began detaining people immediately.
"[The clampdown was] very harsh yesterday," Chen said. "They announced that 39 people were taken to the police station. There is only one young woman who hasn't been released yet," she said on Monday.
Shouwang pastor Jin Tianming, who is currently being held under house arrest at his Beijing home, said the church had yet to decide how to proceed.
"We rented a venue, but the authorities are putting the landlord under pressure, and he has said he wants to terminate our contract," Jin said.
"We haven't decided what our next step will be."
Meanwhile, around 50 unofficial house church members in Zhejiang's Dongyang county were raided while holding a meeting on Saturday to plan their Christmas gathering, with four people detained by police.
Pastor Luo Sennian, who was detained and beaten, resulting in facial injuries, said on Monday that two people had already been released.
"They threw out all the things that belong to our church," Luo said. "I went over there to talk to them, and immediately five or six of them set about beating me."
"My son was beaten up by eight or nine people after he tried to stop them [beating me]," he said. "I had a lot of blood on my face."
He said Christmas celebrations had still partially gone ahead. "Then, nearly an hour later, the police from the local police station detained us," Luo said.
The entire Luo family was taken to the local police station where they were detained and interrogated for 9-1/2 hours for "holding an illegal religious gathering," ChinaAid said.
"ChinaAid was stunned by the persecution suffered by Christian churches as well as brothers and sisters for wanting to celebrate Christmas," the group said in a statement on its website.
"Why is the Chinese government, the so-called “People’s government," so scared of Christmas?"
While leaders of China's unofficial churches, which overseas groups estimate as having some 40 million followers, say their activities have little to do with politics or human rights, raids on unofficial worship have been stepped up in a recent nationwide security clampdown.
Shouwang's 1,000-strong congregation has had problems finding a venue to hold services, a situation that leaders blame on government interference.
Protestant worshipers in Sichuan say they have come under heavy pressure from local officials to register with China's official Protestant body, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
"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.
Officially an atheist country, China nonetheless has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in the wake of massive social change and economic uncertainty since economic reforms began 30 years ago.
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 Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service and Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.