WASHINGTON -- Over the last five Sundays, more than 100 members of the Shouwang Church in Beijing have been detained to prevent them from meeting. It is a confrontation between state and conscience with broad implications for the future of China.
A member of the church, speaking to me anonymously, described the congregation as mainly "intellectuals and professionals." What began as a Bible study group for university students has grown to 1,000 worshipers -- the Chinese equivalent of a mega-church. "The Christians are very serious Christians," she told me. "They are not political at all. They respect the government, love the country, respect authority. But they want to follow God, to engage in normal Christian practice." And they find such practice impossible in China's state-sponsored churches, which were initially designed to keep religion a government-controlled monopoly.
Years of government harassment eventually prevented the Shouwang congregation from renting or buying a building, so it began meeting in the open air. During a police crackdown on Easter Sunday, hundreds of congregants were detained in their homes and more than three dozen taken into custody. Pastors and church leaders remain under house arrest to prevent further services. Members have been pressured by their employers and university professors to renounce their association with Shouwang.
Such mistreatment is not widespread in China, where 50 million to 70 million people meet regularly in house churches. But the Shouwang Church is the symbol of an increasingly educated, urban Chinese Christianity. Their treatment is a signal to the house church movement, and could be an example followed by authorities and police elsewhere.
The motives of Chinese authorities are, as usual, murky. Revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East may be causing heightened suspicion of any form of defiance or dissent. But this attitude is not new. The Chinese government has a long-standing fear of any organization with sources of unity and belief outside of the state -- not only of political organizations but also of potentially political organizations. And Protestant house churches have become the largest non-governmental organization in China.