For the pastoral leaders of Shouwang Church in Beijing, an already-deteriorating situation may grow far worse in the next 48 hours: ChinaAid president Bob Fu told me on Tuesday that a reliable source in China reports that the government crackdown against the prominent house church will be "dramatically escalating" within the next two days.
Fu believes the Shouwang pastors-who have led the congregation in worship outdoors since the government prevented access to the church's indoor meeting space in April- likely will face significant criminal charges.
Though Chinese Christians have long faced persecution from the Communist government, arresting the well-known Shouwang leaders would signal the government's continued willingness to openly and publicly oppose Christians despite international pressure to allow greater freedom of worship.
Shouwang leaders say government officials have pressured landlords into revoking rental arrangements for worship space, and have blocked access to a building the church purchased over a year ago.
Telling their church members, "Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith," the Shouwang leaders announced they would hold worship services outside-a practice forbidden by local officials.
On April 10, police detained 160 Shouwang members gathered for an outdoor worship service in Beijing. After releasing most of the detainees, police kept the church leadership under informal house arrest, preventing them from leaving their homes.
Church members continued to meet outdoors, and more detentions followed: More than 50 on April 17, at least 36 on Easter Sunday, and another 31 on May 1, according to church leaders, who also report that police blocked hundreds of church members from leaving their homes to attend the outdoor worship service on Easter.
Though reports of impending criminal charges against the pastors are unconfirmed, Fu says his government source reports "an important decision was made by top political leadership to launch a major escalated crackdown of the Shouwang case." Fu says the pastors have been prepared for such a possibility since deciding to meet outdoors.
Despite the crackdown and increasing persecution, Shouwang church leaders have continued to publish an order of worship for Sunday services. Even though the outdoor services usually don't have an opportunity to commence before authorities intervene, the pastors hope that any members cornered in their homes on Sundays use the order of worship as families. Any of the Shouwang members following last Sunday's liturgy would have read aloud these words from Revelation: "Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!"