Five church leaders have been detained in China over accusations that they are leading a cult as the Communist government continues what believers are calling the worst anti-Christian crackdown in decades.
According to a recent report from China Aid, government officials raided the 71st Street Christian Church in Luoyang, Henan province, during a five-day Bible training session held earlier this month. Over 70 church leaders were participating in the training, five of whom were detained for 15 days by Xigong County Police.
The five have been identified as Shen and Li Jianghua from Taiwan, 71st Street Church's pastor Li Jia'en, a Shanxi pastor, Ms Li Jiangtao, and a Henan pastor, Liang Jing, all of whom are accused of "using a cult organization to undermine law enforcement".
A penalty notice read: "According to the facts of your violations, the characteristics, circumstances, and degree to which they harm society and other related truths, your law-violating actions are severe."
The church has been ordered to cease all its activities, and further meetings have been banned, Pastor Li Jia'en told China Aid.
"We were put in detention, the church was closed, and now we must pay more than 10,000 Yuan (U.S. $1,600) every month for a house that we cannot use. The shops nearby were all given public security cards, telling them to call authorities if they catch us meeting," he lamented.
In theory, China officially guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has exhibited a growing discomfort with Christianity, whose followers are said to rival in number the 86 million members of the Communist Party. The Pew Research Center puts the number of Christians in China at 67 million, 58 million of whom are Protestant and 9 million Catholic.
"The leaders think Christianity is a foreign religion and it is part of a foreign culture, which they define as 'Western' culture," church leader Chen Zhi'ain told CNN earlier this year. "They see our growth as an invasion of Western culture into China."
As reported by the Gospel Herald, over 1,700 churches have had their crosses removed by government officials or been demolished entirely over the past year, including the Sanjiang mega-church in Wenzhou, a city commonly referred to as "China's Jerusalem" due to its large Christian population
Additionally, numerous Christian leaders who resisted the cross campaign have been detained by police. Zhang Kai, a Christian human rights lawyer who fought against the campaign 2013, was seized by security agents and taken into custody in August, where he still remains.
"[Zhang] felt the persecution of the churches was getting worse," Terry Halliday, a professor at the American Bar Foundation who has known Zhang for almost a decade, told The Guardian. "His view was that [the crosses campaign] was a provocation against religion."
She added that the persecution of Christians in China is unlikely to end anytime soon: "From the point of view of the top leaders, Christians might present a particular danger because they are the largest civil society grouping in China, they are increasingly connected to each other and therefore they might have an increased capacity to mobilize if their freedoms are harmed further."