The leaders of the Shouwang Church in Beijing have a simple explanation for why they'd rather relinquish their freedom than abandon their church services: "Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith."
That conclusion led church members to gather outside for a Sunday morning service on April 10, which ended with police detaining more than 160 Christians armed with Bibles and hymn sheets.
Authorities have since released all of the worshippers-though at least two church leaders remain under house arrest-but police may face round two this Sunday: The Christians-who say government officials have cut off access to their indoor meeting place-declare they'll meet outside for worship again, even if it means facing detention or arrest. And they insist that Chinese authorities should let them worship freely, even if their church isn't registered with the government.
It's an extraordinary declaration. Bob Fu, director of Texas-based ChinaAid, said he couldn't think of another recent example of Christians openly challenging government authorities. "There's not a group of church members in China that have taken any steps like this before," he said. "It's definitely bold."
Chinese authorities formally require churches to register with the government, but many congregations refuse to submit church practices to the oversight of a government that persecutes Christians. The unregistered "house church" movement includes congregations that meet in homes, office buildings, and other rented spaces, and has exploded in numbers over the last two decades.
Authorities have sometimes knowingly allowed house churches to meet, as long as the groups don't pose a perceived threat. Even the hundreds of members of Shouwang Church in Beijing have managed to meet without government registration. But authorities began cracking down on the church in recent years, and church leaders say officials have interfered with their ability to rent meeting space and blocked access to a building the church purchased more than a year ago. Refusing to break into smaller groups-or meet secretly-church leaders decided to meet outdoors, an action the government deemed illegal.
With revolutions and unrest sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, the Chinese church leaders emphasized in a letter to church members that they aren't instigating a political demonstration: "We promote outdoor worship simply because we want to worship God." But the letter also criticizes Chinese officials in the country's religious affairs department, saying the office has "overstepped its jurisdiction" in preventing Christians from worshipping freely.