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Verna Yu
Nov 23, 2009

Shanghai police detained six Christian leaders from a banned underground church in an apparent bid to stop an outdoor service yesterday, according to one of them.
Cui Quan , senior pastor of the Shanghai Wanbang Church, said police took away two colleagues for questioning on Saturday, and four clergymen including himself were detained early yesterday. They were all released by the afternoon.

Cui said police accused the church of being illegal and repeatedly questioned them separately over the details of its operation.

“We have nothing to fear, but we feel the religious environment in China has got a lot worse recently,” he said. “For those of us who are firm in our beliefs, our faith will only grow stronger, but for those who are not so strong, this is a huge blow.”

The unregistered church, which has about 1,000 members, was closed by the Minhang district Civil Affairs Bureau two weeks ago because its activities were illegal.

The congregation, which had been worshipping regularly in a commercial building for four years, was evicted and authorities used wooden boards to block its entrances.

The church then planned to gather at a park, Cui said. He believed authorities had detained the clergymen to block the service, but 500 people managed to worship there yesterday morning anyway.

Authorities had also been pressuring followers to leave the church.

The church has launched an official complaint against its closure, arguing that freedom of assembly and religion are protected under the constitution.

Officially atheist, the government only permits worship in state-approved churches, although millions of Christians continue to worship in unregistered “house” churches.

An official at the Shanghai Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission said unregistered churches were breaking the law and were rightly banned.

Repeated calls to the Minhang district police went unanswered.

This is not the first time the Wanbang church has been targeted by the authorities. In February, police and State Administration for Religious Affairs officials ordered it to cancel a seminar, and when the church defied the order, the church’s landlord was pressured to terminate the rental agreement.

Rights activists say authorities have stepped up the persecution of Christian churches in recent weeks.

This month, Beijing-based Shouwang Church, with about 700 members, was forced to worship at a park in a snowstorm after being evicted from its rented premises.