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Saturday, August 21, 1999 Published at 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

China 'arrests church leaders'

Worship is allowed in communist China but not behind closed doors

A Hong Kong-based human rights group says eight Christian leaders have been arrested in the central Chinese province of Henan for holding an illegal gathering.

The Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China says police raided a house in the city of Wugang and took away eight Protestant "home church" leaders.

The 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

[ image: Christians say rural areas are most susceptible to their mission]
Christians say rural areas are most susceptible to their mission
Correspondents say the mainly Protestant home church activity has alarmed the Chinese Government, which requires all religious practice to be limited to officially registered places of worship.

The centre said it feared that the men could now face "re-education through labour" on charges of illegal assembly.

It says China's Christian population has swelled to 50 million from about two million 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 40 million.

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


[ image: Devotees of Falun Gong felt the hand of authority in July]
Devotees of Falun Gong felt the hand of authority in July
The centre says it has recorded 233 Christianity-related arrests in the province of Henan - a hotbed of Christian growth - since October.

China has effectively barred Pope John Paul from visiting Hong Kong during his Asian tour later in 1999, citing the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan which China considers a renegade province.

The reported arrests come amid a crackdown on followers of the Falun Gong movement, a fusion of meditation with Buddhist mysticism, which was banned by the government last month.

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