Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have begun a probe into local unofficial Protestant "house churches" that could herald a broader campaign to abolish the institutions across the country, religious groups said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party's ideological agency in Jiaozhou city called on township Party committees and neighborhood panels to investigate fully all unofficial venues of worship on their territory, according to a Party document posted on the website of the Christian rights group ChinaAid.
The document requires local authorities to complete their investigation and report the results by March 25, including details of group leaders and key members, numbers of worshippers, and activities engaged in, as well as any contacts with overseas organizations.
Investigators are also required to find out the attitude of house church members toward the Party's Three-Self Patriotic Association of government-backed Protestant churches, and whether the group would accept official direction.
Pastor Zhan Gang, deputy director of the Jiaozhou branch of the Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance, said in an interview Wednesday that authorities were carrying out the move.
"All of the groups and worship venues in my district have been investigated," Zhan said.
"They have mobilized the United Work Front committees in each township and village, the village Party committees as well as neighbors and landlords and other social connections."
"Every household [linked to the house churches] has been thoroughly investigated," Zhan said, adding that Jiaozhou alone is home to more than 100 groups and places of worship.
He said other areas of China had also been targeted for similar probes, including the southern city of Shenzhen, the eastern city of Hangzhou, and the southwestern megacity of Chongqing.
Zhan said the probes were likely linked to a 2011 secret directive from Beijing seen by ChinaAid that ordered an end to house church worship within the next decade.
Similar directive in Shenzhen
Shenzhen-based pastor Zhao Jianjun, who heads the Zhongfugangtou house church said he had received a similar directive to that seen in Shandong.
"The neighborhood committee called me up and asked when they could come round and take a look, and I told them that we all had jobs and that we were pretty busy," Zhao said.
"But if they did come round, we would cooperate with them," he added.
Zhao said some of his church members had been questioned recently by police after they went to evangelize on the premises of Taiwan-invested electronics giant Foxconn.
"Last week, one of our teams was handing out leaflets inside Foxconn, when they caught the attention of the local police, who went over to talk to them," he said.
Guangdong house church members questioned
Meanwhile, in the Guangdong provincial capital Guangzhou, police had repeatedly questioned members of the Guangfujia house church, according to its pastor, Ma Ke.
"The police came to see me, and said they wanted me to write a report with details of how many members we had, and how members apply to join, names, and that sort of thing," Ma said.
"I told them I could write something for them, but I might not write it the way they wanted it ... but they keep coming back," he said.
But he said he had refused to write down names and contact details of his church members.
"I'm not a cop, so I have no right to do that sort of thing," Ma said.
Ma said his church had invested in a property for their meetings in November 2011, but that the authorities had cut off the water and electricity supply for more than a year, rendering the property unusable with a large mortgage to pay.
Every time church members approached the authorities, they were told they would have to join the Three-Self Patriotic Association to have them restored.
Officially an atheist country, China 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.