BEIJING – Beijing police on Sunday detained dozens of worshippers from an unapproved Christian church who were trying to hold services in a public space after they were evicted from their usual place of worship, a parishioner said.
Leaders of the unregistered Shouwang church had told members to gather at an open-air venue in Beijing for Sunday morning services, but police, apparently alerted to their plans, taped off the area and took away people who showed up to take part.
China's Communist government allows worship only in state-approved churches, but many Christians belong to unregistered congregations. Such "house churches" are subjected to varying degrees of harassment by authorities.
More than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in China's independent churches, compared with about 20 million who worship in the state church, according to scholars and church activists.
A church member who went to the gathering spot for services and managed to evade police told the Associated Press that about 200 people were taken away and were being held at a local school. Their cellphones were confiscated, said the man, who would give only his English name, Kane, for fear of police reprisals.
An AP videographer saw about a dozen people escorted by police onto an empty city bus and driven away.
Shouwang pastor Yuan Ling said by telephone that he was unable to go to the venue because police had put him under house arrest Saturday night. Yuan said he knew of at least six other church members who were also under house arrest.
Yuan said fellow parishioners also told him that many worshippers were being held at a school in Beijing's Haidian district, though he wasn't sure of the exact number.
Shouwang had been holding services at a Beijing restaurant until last week, when they were evicted.
Chinese authorities have been on high alert for large public gatherings in the wake of anonymous online calls for anti-government protests modeled on demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa.
No major protests have occurred in China following the calls, but the security crackdown they sparked has resulted in the arrest or detention of dozens of public interest lawyers, writers, intellectuals and activists.
Ai Weiwei, an internationally known avant-garde artist who is also an outspoken government critic, became the highest-profile person targeted in the sweep when he was apparently detained at a Beijing airport a week ago. The Foreign Ministry says he is being investigated for alleged economic crimes, though Beijing police have yet to confirm he is in custody.
Ai was last seen being led away by police at the airport after being barred from boarding a flight to Hong Kong.
About 50 pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday demanded Ai's release, peacefully chanting "No to political persecution" outside the central Chinese government's liaison office. Opposition legislator Lee Cheuk-yan tossed a picture of Ai into the grounds of the compound.
Former British colony Hong Kong enjoys Western-style civil liberties as part of its special semiautonomous status under Chinese rule.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Ai's release and criticized China for what she said was a deteriorating human rights situation in the first part of 2011.
Clinton made the remarks while announcing the release of the U.S. State Department's annual assessment of human rights around the world. It said China stepped up restrictions on critics and tightened control of civil society in 2010 by limiting freedom of speech and Internet access.
China blasted back at Washington on Saturday with a statement on the Foreign Ministry's website saying the U.S. should reflect more on its own domestic rights abuses.
"The U.S. should stop interfering in other country's internal affairs with this human rights report," ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted as saying.