As the ruling Chinese Communist Party gathers for its five-yearly congress in Beijing, authorities in southern and southwestern China have slapped a travel ban on a number of Christian believers, while preventing others from meeting for worship, sources said.
Members of the Autumn Rain Blessing Church in Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan province, said several of their fellow believers had been prevented from attending a Protestant Christian symposium in Hong Kong.
The church's pastor Wang Yi was detained on Sept. 26 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," as he tried to travel to the Three-Fold Vision Christian conference in the former British colony.
He was detained and questioned for three hours before being allowed to return home. His wife attended in his place.
Now, Wang and Sichuan rights activist Ran Yunfei have been prevented from attending a Westminster Theological Seminary event in Hong Kong, sources told RFA on Friday.
Ran declined to comment when contacted by RFA, saying it was "not convenient," a word often used by activists to denote police surveillance or monitoring of their conversations.
Church member Ding Shuqi was also incommunicado after posting to social media that police had found him after he checked in for a flight to Hong Kong to attend the same conference.
A fellow church member who asked to remain anonymous said on Friday that Ding had been detained as he went through immigration to board the plane, and later released a day later.
"They let him go, after a bit of a dispute," the church member said. "But we prevailed, and the police thought we were right about it."
"I think the authorities are a bit more sensitive right now because we have the 19th party congress at the moment, and they want to stop any kind of incident from happening while it's happening," the church member said.
"That's why they are stopping us from leaving the country."
Authorities in the southern province of Guangdong broke up a meeting of more than 20 believers of an unofficial "house church" in Taishan city last week, warning them not to try to gather again, church members said.
"There are people in the home of our church leader Zheng Shaoyun right now," a church member who declined to be named told RFA on Thursday. "She has been running this church for 17 or 18 years now, and there are about 70 people on its books."
"Her son has been accepted as a civil servant, and the state security police have been at her house for the past few days carrying out ideological work, hoping to persuade her to give up her missionary work," the church member said.
"If she keeps on doing it, then this will have a negative impact on her son's job ... and this will affect his future."
Stepped up controls on all religions
Elsewhere in the province, a Dongguan house church pastor surnamed Du told RFA that the authorities are stepping up controls and surveillance of all religious groups during the 19th party congress.
"Things are very tense during this period, because of the congress," Du said. "That's why there are special restrictions [to holding meetings for worship]."
Meanwhile, authorities in the southwestern province of Yunnan were moving ahead with the the trial of seven Christian church members in Chuxiong city on charges of "using a cult organization to obstruct enforcement of the law."
"It's not convenient for me to go into the details, because the trial hasn't opened yet," defense lawyer Liu Wei told RFA. "We were told that the charges were being brought against the Three Servants sect [of Protestant Christianity]."
"My initial assessment is that they are not guilty, but we will have to decide what argument we will make based on the situation at the time of trial."
Earlier this month, Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily warned party members not to "pray to God" or follow religious or spiritual leaders.
The commentary linked recent cases of officials investigated for corruption to their participation in "feudalistic superstitious activities."
"In fact, some officials often go to monasteries, pray to God and worship Buddha," the paper said. "Some officials are obsessed with rubbing shoulders with masters, fraternizing with them as brothers and becoming their lackeys and their money-trees."
While China officially guarantees freedom of religion for major belief systems like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, party members are expected to be staunch atheists.
Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, was quoted in a recent article by the Global Times as saying that religion is off-limits for members of the ruling party.
"Party members should be firm Marxist atheists, obey party rules and stick to the party's faith... They are not allowed to seek value and belief in religion," Wang was quoted as saying.
He warned that "foreign forces" are using religion to infiltrate China, threatening the country's security.
According to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, China is now home to some 100 million Christian believers, outstripping the Communist Party's membership of 85 million.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.