China detains underground church followers: group

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Police in Beijing rounded up dozens of followers of an underground Protestant church Sunday, a rights group said, as a widening crackdown on dissent appeared to spread to religious figures.

Police late Saturday also detained Jin Tianming, a senior pastor of Beijing's Shouwang church, an unregistered Protestant congregation, and other church leaders before releasing them early Sunday, the US-based China Aid group said.

Jin's detention came after the church called for an outdoor worship meeting following a similar gathering last Sunday that resulted in police rounding up nearly 170 church followers, most of whom were later released.

The action against the church comes amid a growing crackdown on dissent across China in which artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals have been detained for allegedly calling for "Jasmine" rallies, similar to those that have rocked the Arab world.

The Shouwang church, one of Beijing's largest "underground" churches, was forced outdoors after the government blocked the rental of its previous place of worship and prevented it from buying a new meeting place, China Aid said.

The church has adamantly denied it has any links to the Jasmine rally calls.

Beijing police refused to comment on the detention of Jin and other senior church leaders.

Church members were not immediately available to comment, but Twitter Internet postings by followers said Sunday's designated meeting place was under a police lockdown and that worshippers were unable to gather in large numbers.

Many worshippers were taken into police custody near the meeting place, postings said. China Aid said at least 30 church followers were detained.

"Many members of Shouwang church were restricted to their homes Sunday morning and unable to attend Shouwang church's second outdoor worship service," the group said.

"We urge the Chinese government to restrain from using violence to further escalate the conflict with peaceful Shouwang worshippers who ask for nothing but religious freedom alone."

China has detained at least 54 dissidents, activists and others in the ongoing crackdown on dissent, highlighted by the recent detention of famed artist Ai Weiwei, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders said Friday.

The latest to be taken into custody include Ni Yulan, an outspoken wheelchair-bound activist for housing rights, and her husband Dong Jiqin, the Hong Kong-based group said in a statement.

Although freedom of religion is enshrined in China's constitution, all religious groups are required to register with the government and worship in officially sanctioned churches.

About 15 million Protestants and five million Catholics worship at official churches in China, according to recent official data.

But more than 50 million others are believed to pray at "underground" or "house" churches, which refuse to submit to government regulation.