The days leading up to Easter are always a sombre time for Christians. But this year in Beijing, many believers have the added concern of not knowing if or where they'll be allowed to celebrate the holiest day of the year on the Christian calendar.
Nearly 50 members of one of Beijing's largest Protestant house churches, including its two pastors, were detained and hundreds of police were deployed in a commercial district in the northwest of the city in order to prevent the congregation from holding an outdoor Palm Sunday service. The leaders of the Shouwang church said they would nonetheless try again next week - Easter Sunday - unless they are given permission to celebrate the mass indoors at their usual premises.
Only officially sanctioned churches are considered legal in China. In practice, however, semi-underground "house churches" - so named because they are not allowed to own property and instead often gather in private homes - have been widely tolerated and allowed to flourish in recent years. The house church movement now has an estimated 60 million members, compared with 20 million who belong to the official organizations, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholics.
Sunday marked the second straight week that police prevented members of the Shouwang church from praying in a public location. The church, which has about 1,000 followers, said it was forced to hold the services outside after being evicted from the restaurant where they gathered every Sunday for more than a year. Shouwang's leaders say the restaurant had been under official pressure to close its doors to the church, and claimed other prospective locations had refused their rent money for the same reason.
"It was a sleepless night. I pray for those [church members]who went outside today," said one member of the Shouwang congregation who was kept under house arrest Sunday. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said the church would try again to hold an outdoor service on Easter Sunday. "This won't stop until we have an indoor site for congregation."
Meanwhile, the leader of another prominent Beijing house church told The Globe and Mail he has been under regular surveillance and an off-and-on informal house arrest for most of the past two months.
The pressure on Shouwang and other house churches coincides with a harsh crackdown on political dissent in the country that has seen dozens of prominent activists, artists and human-rights lawyers detained, in most cases without any public explanation. Liu Fenggang, pastor of the smaller Sheng Ai house church, said the two campaigns were linked by the government's fear of a Middle East-style uprising happening in China after anonymous calls to stage a "jasmine revolution" in the country circulated online earlier this year.
"This crackdown against Shouwang is completely connected to the 'colour revolutions' in the Arab world," the 52-year-old Mr. Liu said in an interview. "There's no relationship between the jasmine revolution and the church. But the government has this fear and they're trying to protect their power."
Mr. Liu said he had been barred from leaving his home each Sunday since January, when it first became clear that the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere posed a genuine threat to the authoritarian governments in those countries.
Mosques became a key rallying point for anti-regime activists in the Middle East, with Fridays - the Muslim holy day - often seeing the largest demonstrations as protesters took to the streets after prayer. The online calls for a similar uprising in China appealed for people to protest in Beijing and other cities each Sunday.
The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper has portrayed the Shouwang dispute as a law-and-order issue, and warned believers not to politicize it. "Chinese society attaches great importance to harmony, and those with religious beliefs should adhere even more strongly to this harmony," read an editorial published last week. "They should not cause any public disturbances through their own religious activities which will put them at odds with society."
On Sunday, the area in Beijing's Zhongguancun neighbourhood chosen for the Shouwang congregation's outdoor service was taped off and flooded with uniformed and plainclothes police officers for a second straight week.
Shouwang's leaders tried in 2006 to register with the government, but were rejected because they refused to join one of the official organizations, which are seen as filtering the message delivered by member churches.
"I believe only Jesus is my saviour," said Peter Wu, a 52-year-old attendee of a Beijing house church. "In China, the Communist Party demands to be above Jesus."