Chinese Christians held as they meet to worship

Beijing police yesterday detained dozens of worshippers from an unapproved Christian church who were trying to hold services in a public space after they were evicted from their usual place of worship.

Leaders of the unregistered Shouwang church had told members to gather at an open-air venue in Beijing for Sunday morning services, but police, apparently alerted to their plans, taped off the area and took away people who arrived to take part.

China's Communist government allows worship only in state-approved churches, but many Christians belong to unregistered congregations. Such "house churches" are subjected to varying degrees of harassment by authorities. Shouwang pastor Yuan Ling said by telephone that he was unable to go to the service because police had put him under house arrest on Saturday night. Yuan said he knew of at least six other church members who were also under house arrest.

Chinese authorities have been on high alert for large public gatherings following online calls for anti-government protests modelled on demonstrations in the Middle East. No major protests have occurred, but the crackdown has led to the arrest or detention of public interest lawyers, writers, intellectuals and activists.

Ai Weiwei, an internationally known avant-garde artist who is also an outspoken government critic, became the highest-profile person targeted in the sweep when he was apparently detained a week ago.