Last July 6 about 300 officers of China's Public Security Bureau (PSB) disrupted Christians at worship in the village of Hengpeng and demolished their church building. A week later, police raided a house church in Xiaoshan city while Christians were meeting at 4 A.M. for Sunday prayer and worship. Both were churches of the "Little Flock" network, founded by Watchman Nee. Nee died for his faith in a Chinese labor camp in 1973.

Authorities arrested at least three leaders in the Xiaoshan church. At the beginning of 2003, Christian leaders in China said they had learned from "inside sources" that the government was planning to systematically crush the house church movement. The SARS epidemic evidently stalled those plans, and now the campaign has begun, they believe.

Chinese authorities consider unregistered congregations political subversives. Protestant churches are allowed to register only through the China Christian Council and its related Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Most house churches balk at registering through the Council and TSPM because of their close cooperation with the government.

New regulations prepared in late 2001 allowing house churches and other congregations to register apart from TSPM "were never rolled out," says Carol Hamrin, a consultant on China.

The Chinese constitution protects religious freedom. Recently, some unregistered churches have successfully appealed to the constitution to obtain reparations for harm done to their leaders or facilities. But the Communist regime forbids worship outside state-backed "patriotic" religious bodies. Evangelism outside church buildings also is forbidden, though both officially recognized and unregistered churches are growing rapidly.

The Communist government finds ...

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