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Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 21:04 GMT
China 'cracks down on Christian churches'

Arrests Falun Gong has been the prime target of the crackdown

China has arrested 103 leaders of underground religious groups in the past three weeks, a human rights group says.

The people arrested belong to groups which combine teachings of Christianity with local culture, the Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China says in a statement.

The Chinese authorities are extending their crackdown on the banned Falun Gong group to target other groups considered to be cults, the Information Centre says.

In the city of Xiangtan in Hunan province, police arrested 75 members of the All Scope Sect on 19 November.

The sect, also known as Born Again Sect or Callout Sect, was set up in Hunan in 1985 by overseas and local church groups.

Its leader, Xu Yongze, was sentenced to three years in prison in 1997. The sentence caused international condemnation.

In the city of Nanxiong in Guangdong province authorities arrested 13 members of the Zhu Shen Sect on 22 November.

One day later, at least 15 people from the Orient Lightning Sect were arrested in the county of Tanghe in Henan province.

Crackdown launched in October

The crackdown on cults was launched in October by the National People's Congress.

It has focussed primarily on the Falun Gong, a fusion of meditation with Buddhist mysticism, which was banned by the government last month.

Buddhist worship Religious worship is allowed, as long as the state can control it
But the authorities are labelling any sect that does not submit itself to the control of the state as an "evil religion".

The Information Centre says China is unfairly labelling these groups as cults even though some of them, including the All Scope Sect and Callout Sect, are considered proper home churches by overseas religious organisations.

In August, the Information Centre said eight Christian leaders had been arrested in the central Chinese province of Henan for holding an illegal gathering.

The Information Centre said about 20 police officers ransacked the house and confiscated Bibles and money.

The owner of the house - one of those arrested - was identified as Zhao Delong.

The others are said to be people who conduct home church services in the neighbouring cities of Xiping and Xincai.

Official alarm

The activity of the mainly Protestant home church movement has alarmed the Chinese government, which requires all religious practice to be limited to officially registered places of worship.

According to the Information Centre, China's Christian population has swelled to 50m from about 2m people since China began loosening controls on religion in the late 1970s.

The growth of Christianity and its practice at home has spread particularly fast in the countryside where the centre says believers number about 40m.

There are 10m Protestants and 4m Catholics in state-recognised churches, according to official figures.

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