SHANGHAI, China (AP) – Police arrested a leader in China’s unofficial Christian movement after raiding a church festival attended by thousands of people, an overseas monitoring group reported Tuesday.
The reported arrest of Zhao Wenquan – who likely faces years in a labor camp – comes in the throes of a campaign by the nation’s communist authorities against religious groups operating outside their control.
Over the past year, scores of church leaders have been detained and church meeting places demolished. Activists working to expose the crackdown have been put on trial for revealing state secrets.
Zhao was detained in the village of Hegou in the eastern province of Anhui on May 9 after more than 4,000 people attended the festival, a crowd ten times larger than at most church gatherings, the U.S.-based China Aid Association reported.
Zhao, who is over 60, has been charged with disturbing social order and organizing an illegal religious gathering, said the group, based in Glenside, Pa. Another dozen leaders in Zhao’s church are in hiding, it said.
The group said Zhao is being held in the jail at Mengcheng County, which includes Hegou, and will likely be given a term of three years in a labor camp. Such punishments, which don’t require trials, are often used against church activists and other perceived government foes, along with petty criminals.
An officer with the Mengcheng police department’s publicity department, who gave only his surname, Shang, said he had no information about Zhao or a festival crackdown.
However, he said a raid may have been carried out by the department’s national security section, whose telephone number was secret.
Zhao’s church is one of hundreds of evangelical Christian groups that face harassment for rejecting the authority of the Communist Party-controlled Protestant church. China claims to have more than 14 million Christians worshipping in its official churches, but monitoring groups say as many as twice that number belong to independent churches.
While some unregistered churches operate in near-complete secrecy, others are tolerated by authorities unless they draw attention to themselves through public activities.
The China Aid Association and other monitoring groups also have reported a major crackdown on a controversial evangelical group in northern China and the arrest of its leader, Xu Shuangfu.
The groups claim Xu was kidnapped last month while visiting the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Dozens of members of Xu’s “Three Grade Servants” church have been arrested in a police crackdown, and one was beaten to death, they say.
Police in Heilongjiang have not commented on the reports.
Separately, Beijing’s top religious official, Ye Xiaowen, and senior Communist Party official Liu Yandong will take the unusual step of meeting the head of Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic Church at a dinner Wednesday with the territory’s religious leaders.
Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen said Tuesday he has been invited to the dinner with Liu and Ye, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Beijing appears to be trying to smooth out relations with Zen, who often attacks the central government for suppressing underground Catholic churches loyal to the Vatican, which China has long viewed with suspicion.