Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou have warned an unofficial Protestant "house church" with around 2,000 members that they are hosting "illegal gatherings," church members told RFA.
The church, which currently occupies premises on the ninth floor of the Xingye Mansions building in Hangzhou's Jianghan district, received a notification from the religious affairs bureau of the local government warning it to "reform its illegal gathering activities."
Lawyer Li Guisheng said he had been asked by the church to offer legal advice during a recent business trip to Hangzhou.
"They arranged a meeting with me to ask for legal advice, because the local government and police station had banned them from meeting, on the grounds that they were carrying out illegal gatherings," Li said.
"This church has a particularly long history, and the government has been trying to get them to join the Three-Self Patriotic Association," Li said, in a reference to the state-sponsored official body regulating Protestant Christians in China.
"But they don't want to, so the government is stopping them from meeting at all," he said.
'No end to government power'
The church has held unofficial worship ceremonies for more than 40 years, dating back to before nationwide purges of religious beliefs and practice during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), according to U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid.
Since the notice was issued, the local government has sent officials around to the church premises to tear down a large cross displayed on a wall, Li said.
"A lot of people are saying that there seems to be no end to government power at the moment," Li said. "They also have no idea how to pursue and stand up for their own rights."
An official who answered the phone at the Sijiqing neighborhood committee offices, which sent officials to remove the church's cross, declined to comment.
"I don't really know the details," the official said. "You'll have to speak to religious affairs chief Gao.
But repeated calls to the number provided resulted in a fax tone on Wednesday.
Government clamp down
Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, similar treatment has been meted out to other Protestant churches in Hangzhou ahead of the city's hosting of the G20 summit in September.
"They have been forcing house churches not to meet ahead of the G20 summit," Zhang said. "They have also been forcing them to join the Three-Self Association in the past couple of years."
"The government has been clamping down on house churches in recent years, trying to manage them more closely, but they are a bit amorphous sometimes, so they have just told them they can't meet for worship," he said. "But the Bible teaches that we can't stop meeting."
The move to stop house churches meeting follows a prolonged cross demolition program in the past year or so by authorities in Zhejiang province, of which Hangzhou is the capital.
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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.