|WASHINGTON — Authorities in China's southwestern province of Sichuan are pressuring a large Christian church to halt its activities, according to the pastor.
The move comes as Chinese authorities are cracking down on unofficial churches and intensifying their harassment of Christians.
"The authorities have asked us to end our family church congregations, calling our gatherings 'illegal,'" Pastor Li, leader of a 1,500-member house church in the city of Langzhong, told Radio Free Asia.
"They … still haven't taken direct action against us, but this has worried churchgoers," Li said.
The government warning arrived on May 18 in a notice delivered to the home of a church member, but was not sent to their meeting place, Li said.
"Our prayer meeting of that day had about 20 believers," Li said, noting that, with the large size of the congregation, church meetings are held in small groups in area villages.
On May 5, a church meeting in Shijiazhuang in China's northeastern Hebei province was broken up by police who declared the gathering illegal. Officers took worshippers' names and told them to pray instead at government-approved churches.
And on May 22, a church staff member in Nanyang in the central province of Henan said authorities had ordered local house church members to join official churches.
"But we categorically refused to do so," the man, surnamed Xi, said. "They want to control us."
"The severity of the crackdown on family churches varies in different places," said Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese Association of Christian Family Churches who is active in preaching in central China's Anhui province.
"In places where there are many family churches, the local government may have a better understanding of them, and officials will be more prudent," Mingxuan said.
"But in places where you have only a few believers, local authorities will treat them as an 'evil cult.'"