BEIJING (AP) — Dozens of Christians have been detained in a raid on a prominent Chinese church that operates outside the government's official Protestant organization, a U.S.-based advocacy group said Monday.
At least 80 churchgoers and seminary students from the Early Rain Covenant Church were taken away in the southwestern city of Chengdu beginning Sunday night, ChinaAid said. Those detained include the church's pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, Jiang Rong.
China has cracked down heavily on independent church groups this year as part of an assault on all religions.
The government requires that Protestants worship only in churches recognized and regulated by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Even within that framework, the officially atheist ruling Communist Party has been seeking to rein in religious expression, including removing crosses from official and unofficial churches.
Early Rain is believed to have several hundred members who meet in different locations around Chengdu, a sprawling city.
Many of those detained, including Wang, were seized from their homes overnight, ChinaAid said.
"The massive overnight attack against members of the independent, renowned Early Rain Covenant Church represents a major escalation of religious persecution in China," Bob Fu, ChinaAid's founder and president, said in a statement on the group's website.
The crackdown, which extended into international Human Rights Day on Monday, shows the administration of President Xi Jinping is "deliberately making itself the enemy of universal values, such as religious freedom for all," said Fu, who is a close friend of Pastor Wang.
Tens of millions of Chinese identify as Christians, the bulk of them being Protestants, and their ranks have been increasingly rapidly despite the Communist Party's efforts to limit them. Their numbers rival the membership of the ruling party, which stands at around 90 million.