HONG KONG—Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have banned unofficial Protestant "house churches" from holding meetings, as the city prepares to host the Asian Games later this week.
Local pastors and their congregations have been warned not to meet during the 16th Asian Games, which run from Nov. 12 to 27, according to rights lawyer and Protestant house church member Tang Jingling.
"This situation is fairly widespread among all the house churches I have dealings with," Tang said.
"[The authorities] have been seeking out the pastors of these groups and ordering them to stop holding meetings."
He said some of the groups had responded by splitting up into much smaller groups and meeting at locations which never remain the same.
He said that police had approached the leaders of his own church group over the ban, which Tang said was likely to remain until January.
"We have switched to small group meetings because of this, meeting at a different person's house each time," Tang said.
But he said the churches are not taking an antagonistic attitude to the Games.
"No one is planning to do anything. However, if you make trouble for people, of course that is going to cause some antipathy."
Wang Dao, pastor of the Guangzhou Liangren church, said that local police had tried to call on him while he was out of town, and that the order was apparently extended to all house churches in the entire Pearl River Delta region.
"The day I came to Shanghai on Oct. 31, some of my brothers and sisters told me that the police had come to my house to speak to me," Wang said.
"It's not just in Guangzhou, but it includes the whole Pearl River delta areas," he added.
"I had a text message from a church in Jiangmen, saying that they had been told to stop their regular meetings over the period of the Asian Games, for security reasons."
Security threat unlikely
But he said that Protestant groups in the region are unlikely to pose much of a security threat.
"There isn't an issue with security," he said. "I think it's just an excuse, so they can undertake a total crackdown and cleanup of house churches."
China’s unregistered churches are under constant fire from the government for operating outside officially sanctioned religious activities.
Officially an atheist country, China 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 unapproved temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
In its most recent report on human rights in China, the U.S. State Department said freedom of religion is permitted to varying degrees around China.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.