Authorities in the Chinese capital have detained dozens of members of an unofficial Christian group as they tried to attend an outdoor Easter service.
At least 30 worshippers from the unregistered Shouwang church were held by police on Sunday in Beijing's western district of Zhongguancun as they showed up for the service, according to U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid.
"There were more than 1,000 police officers in Zhongguancun [on Sunday]," ChinaAid founder Bob Fu said.
"There were plainclothes cops everywhere, national security police, with police cars and pre-arranged buses [for detainees]," Fu said.
Police had already confined around 500 members of the Shouwang's congregation to their homes ahead of the service, preventing them from attending, ChinaAid said.
They included Shouwang's pastors and lay leaders, including founding and senior pastor Jin Tianming, who hadn't been allowed to leave their homes in two weeks, the group said in a statement on its website.
"I didn't [go to the service]," said one Shouwang member surnamed Liu. "I couldn't go."
But he declined to comment further. "It is not convenient for us to talk to you right now," he said.
Asked if he was currently under surveillance, Liu said: "Uh-huh."
ChinaAid said it had received news of at least 34 detentions on Sunday afternoon.
An officer who answered the phone at the Haidian district police station on Sunday declined to comment.
Fu said the authorities appeared to be interpreting religious regulations much more strictly than before.
"If you follow their oppressive and restrictive laws to the letter, then any group that hasn't registered with the government is illegal," he said.
"But Clause 36 of China's Constitution states that the people enjoy the freedom of religious belief."
Unofficial Christian church members and leaders are being targeted by China's government in its latest clampdown on dissent sparked by calls for "Jasmine" rallies inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
However, Fu said Shouwang and other unofficial churches with large followings had already been targeted by the government in a directive dated Dec. 1, 2010, titled "Shock and Awe."
"Apart from Shouwang in Beijing, there are at least three relatively big house churches in Guangzhou which have been banned," he said.
"There are also large house churches in Shandong, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia that have been banned."
He said the "Shock and Awe" directive had coincided with a fresh crackdown on all forms of dissent sparked by recent unrest in the Middle East.
"It's very hard to understand the methods they are using," Fu said. "All it can do is lead to a backlash effect."
Raids stepped up
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 underground places of worship have been stepped up under the recent nationwide security clampdown.
Shouwang, which has around 1,000 members, says its outdoor worship services aren't political, and are the direct result of being forced out of previous premises under official pressure.
The U.S. State Department blasted China’s human rights record in an annual report this month, saying the situation is “worsening."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington has been concerned by the unrelenting crackdown on dissidents by Chinese authorities since February.
The State Department wrote in its 2010 Human Rights Report that Chinese individuals and groups continued to face restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel.
Meanwhile, the central government continued to curtail the cultural and religious rights of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, it said.
China dismissed the report as a pretext for interference by Washington in its internal affairs, publishing its own report on what it called the human rights situation in the United States.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.