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Shouwang and Wangbang church leaders have not been d etained, but activists fear further arrests are coming.|
In a brief phone conversation, Wangbang's pastor Cui Quan said worship continued in small groups while he fought to have their lease restored. He declined to give other details.
Christianity was long associated with foreign interference in traditionally Buddhist and Taoist China, and came under heavy attack after the 1949 Communist r evolution.
The most onerous restrictions were lifted after the death of communist leader M ao Z edong in 1976. Although Christians still account for a less than 10 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, recent years have seen rapid growth in house churches in both cities and rural areas,
Adding to official concerns about their numbers, house-church Christians also emphasize missionary work - - illegal in China - - and some have even operated an underground network to help smuggle North Korean refugees and U ighurs out of China in defiance of the s ecurity forces.
The Golden Lamp Church was built by husband and wife evangelists Wang X iaoguang and Y ang R ongli as a permanent home for their followers, whose numbers had soared to more than 50,000.
The couple, administrators at the provincial teachers' college, had been preaching in the region around the city of Linfen since 1992, establishing a network of three dozen communities meeting in improvised spaces such as factory dormitories and greenhouses. They also attracted thousands to tent revival meetings.
According to Bob Fu, Shanxi authorities grumbled as the church was being built last year, but did not try to stop work and offered few, if any, signs that an impending c rackdown.
On a rainy Sunday in mid-September, some 400 police officers and hired thugs descended on more than a dozen church properties around Linfen, smashing doors and windows and hauling off computers, Bibles, and church funds, according to accounts posted online by church members and their allies.
Those accounts said worshippers who resisted were beaten, with dozens hospitalized with serious injuries.
Wang, Yang, and three other church leaders were convicted on Nov. 25 on charges including illegally occupying agricultural land and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic. Yang, 51, received a seven-year sentence, while Wang, 56, and the others received terms of three to four years. Five others were sentenced without trial to two years in a labor camp.
Other church leaders have gone into hiding.
Courts, police and government officials in Linfen refused to comment on the claims of violence and persecution. A local Communist Party spokesman said only that the case centered on the mega-church's lack of planning approval.
"We have always supported and allowed everybody to believe in religion. But the church itself is an illegally constructed building," said the spokesman, who would give only his surname, Wang.
A lawyer for Wang and Yang, Li Fangping, said the church had applied for permits to build the church from the local religious affairs bureau and the land use authority, but received no reply.
Almost three months after the c rackdown, people in and around Linfen refuse to discuss the church, and police vehicles remain parked on virtually every corner of the neighborhood where the Golden Lamp is located.
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