China is tightening a clampdown on unregistered Christian churches, with members of a prominent evangelical congregation saying police have detained its activist pastor along with scores of its worshipers.
Officials have threatened to close the Early Rain Covenant Church in the central city of Chengdu by the end of the year in keeping with new religious-management regulations, according to several congregants who said they had been waiting for the net to fall. In coordinated raids starting Sunday night, police detained Pastor Wang Yi and more than 100 of the church’s 500 members, said Li Yingqiang, a church leader.
Mr. Wang, a prominent figure in China’s Christian community, has trained his impassioned rhetorical skills on criticizing President Xi Jinping’s rule and on organizing resistance to the new regulations, which require registration of all churches, setting out strict parameters.
A petition organized by Early Rain this summer that condemned the crackdown begun in February on unregistered churches—which refuse control by state religious authorities—drew signatures from more than 400 pastors around China; Mr. Wang’s was the first. “He’s the bravest pastor in China today,” said the Rev. Hong Yujie, a longtime friend of Pastor Wang and who is based in Vancouver.
Chengdu’s Public Security Bureau and religious-affairs regulator didn’t immediately respond to faxed requests for comment, nor did China’s national religious regulator. Police have detained Mr. Wang and Early Rain worshipers before, releasing them after a few hours or days.
President Xi has overseen a determined effort to stamp out dissent and criticism of the Communist Party and his rule, and religions, many of which have boomed in popularity in recent decades, are a target. Across China, authorities have moved to dismantle crosses and onion domes from some officially sanctioned churches and mosques and to close unregistered ones.
China’s Communist Party has instituted ‘Caesar worship’ by turning politics into a religion that elevates President Xi Jinping to the status of a Roman emperor or Egypt’s pharaohs.
– Pastor Wang Yi in manifesto published online Saturday
In Christianity’s case, evangelical groups have been at loggerheads for years with Beijing, which outlaws proselytizing and dislikes charity work outside government purview. Leaders of some unregistered churches have unleashed some of the most trenchant critiques of Mr. Xi’s government, often couched in Biblical metaphor and driven by a sense of justice.
On Saturday, Mr. Wang published on social media a 7,300-word manifesto titled “Meditations on the Religious War.” In it, he urged Chinese Christians to civil disobedience and accused the Communist Party of instituting “Caesar worship” by turning politics into a religion that elevates Mr. Xi to the status of the Roman emperor or Egypt’s pharaohs.
Such an ideology, he wrote, is “morally incompatible with the Christian faith and with all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.”
Mr. Wang, 45, was a legal scholar and social activist before founding Early Rain in 2008. After stepping into the pulpit, he carried on his activism and called for separation of church and state. He annually holds a service to remember the 1989 suppression of the democracy movement centered on Tiananmen Square and organized a service this year for the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. Police detained him and other churchgoers over both events this year.
Several church members said Sunday’s police sweep may have been prompted by Early Rain’s role in organizing the petition against the new religious-affairs regulations. The document called the crackdown on unregistered churches “an abuse of government power” and rejected the state-approved church.
The raids in Chengdu deepened the sense among Chinese Christians that an era was ending in which authorities at times tolerated unregistered churches despite their being technically illegal. Another prominent unregistered church, Beijing’s Zion Church, announced in September it was going deeper underground, dividing into small groups, after authorities detained its leaders and sealed off the church building.
Mr. Li of Early Rain said they would stand firm: Public services would continue as long as there are followers not under arrest. “Some house churches have to sacrifice,” he said. “We are willing to do it.”