Prayers in the kitchen: Why religious groups fear a loss of freedom in China

By Saša Petricic for CBC News

One by one, they climb the dim, concrete stairs to the third-floor apartment. They come here every Friday morning, about a dozen in all. They are the determined, the devout, the dissidents. On their way to pray.

Their church is a small studio apartment where Pastor Xu Yonghai lives in a working-class part of Beijing. A cross on the wall and a pile of Bibles in the kitchen are the only clues that this place is part of China's fast-growing Christian movement.

At least half of the country's 70 million adherents attend unauthorized services like this one, in thousands of these so-called house churches.

"In the official churches, the priests are under the control of the Communist Party," says Xu.

"We follow the words of Jesus. And if Jesus were alive, he wouldn't join the Communist Party. He would protest human rights and would probably be crucified again."

This house church was established in 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen Square democracy protests were crushed by the Chinese military.

The police watch this, but so far they have not prevented it, as they have with other house churches.

Christian and other religious groups worry all such gatherings may soon be targets for the government, under a new, stricter version of the 10-year-old Regulations on Religious Affairs.

This one cites national security as an overriding priority. Beijing has not said when it goes into effect, but most assume it is already the law of the land.

Many of those who have gathered around Xu's dining table have been involved in anti-government demonstrations. Like Xu, most have spent time in jail.

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