BEIJING — The police detained dozens of members of an underground Protestant church on Sunday morning, after the congregation tried to pray in a public plaza in the north of the capital.
A parishioner was ordered into a van by a plainclothes police officer in Beijing on Sunday.
The police corralled scores of parishioners into buses and blocked church leaders from leaving their homes. Among those detained was a photographer from The New York Times, who was later released.
Last week the church, Shouwang, was evicted from the space it had been renting after the government pressured the landlord not to renew the lease. The congregation, one of the largest so-called house churches in China, has been seeking legal recognition from the authorities since 2006 without success.
After years of tolerance by the country’s religious authorities, unregistered churches have been facing increased pressure to either disband or join the system of state-controlled congregations. There are as many as 60 million Protestants in China, with a growing number choosing house churches.
The government’s campaign against Shouwang, which means watchtower, has been escalating since 2008, when the authorities began forcing the 1,000-member congregation out of its rented quarters. In 2009, after an earlier eviction, the church paid 27 million renminbi, or $4.1 million, for a full floor of an office building but the owner of the space, under pressure from the authorities, has refused to hand over the keys.
The move against Shouwang comes at a time of escalating repression against dissent, a campaign that has led the jailing of scores of rights lawyers, writers and activists. Among those seized last week was Ai Weiwei, one of the country’s best known artists and an outspoken government critic, who was detained as he tried to board a plane for Hong Kong. The government has denied targeting Mr. Ai for his activism, saying he is suspected of unspecified “economic crimes.”
A man who answered the phone at the Haidian police station, which is several blocks from the site of the planned prayer service, refused to answer questions about the detentions on Sunday. Most of those detained were brought to a nearby elementary school, where they were briefly questioned and photographed.
The church made no secret of its attempt to gather outdoors, announcing its plans on the Internet, and publicly explaining that it had no choice but to pray in public. During his final sermon last week at the restaurant the church had been renting, the pastor, the Rev. Jin Tianming, warned parishioners that they would likely meet resistance. “At this time, the challenges we face are massive,” he said. “For everything that we have faced, we offer our thanks to God. Compared with what you faced on the cross, what we face now is truly insignificant.”
According to church members, Reverend Jin and other church leaders were blocked from leaving their homes by the police on Sunday. Others were seized as they emerged from the subway station at Zhongguancun plaza, a popular shopping area where the services were scheduled to be held.
By 8 a.m., hundreds of police officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, swarmed the area. A wall of blue metal construction barriers, erected the night before, blocked off an adjacent public plaza.
The police questioned passers-by and forced parishioners on to buses, dragging and shoving those who refused to go. At one point, a group of plainclothes police officers could be seen kicking and beating a group of four young people. As one of the buses pulled away, the congregants pulled out a photocopied prayer sheet and began to sing.