BEIJING: President Barack Obama, scheduled to arrive in China last night, is under pressure to press the Chinese Government to halt a new campaign of "persecution" against the country's flourishing network of unregistered churches.
The largest of these "house churches" in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Linfen have been evicted from their buildings in recent weeks and a number of their leaders have been questioned, detained or arrested.
"Obama should tell President Hu Jintao to stop the persecution of China's house churches," said Zhang Mingxuan, the president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, speaking by phone from a hotel in Nanyang where he was being detained for the duration of Mr Obama's visit to China.
Fan Yafeng, a prominent church leader, legal scholar and human rights activist, told the Herald that the growing crackdown against house churches was larger and more important than campaigns earlier this year against human rights lawyers, the media and the internet.
He said the informal Christian church network was a more formidable adversary than any other section of China's civil society because of its capacity to mobilise within China and abroad. "This is the Communist Party's battle of life and death," said Professor Fan, who was sacked from his Government think-tank job two weeks ago.
He did not think the party could win this battle because of the "contrast" between Christian and Communist Party commitment to their respective faiths.
Earlier this month Professor Fan published a challenging sermon on the Chinese internet which likened the Communist Party to the Red Sea that had temporarily blocked the path of the Israelites in their Exodus out of Egypt.
"When the party-state can't tolerate the state of God, the people of God need to walk out and cross the ocean," he wrote.
China's Christian population has surged from about 3 million during the Cultural Revolution to 130 million, according to the highest Chinese Government estimate.
The majority of Chinese Christians are members of "official" Catholic and Protestant church organisations that are closely linked with government organisations. But the fastest growth has been seen in hundreds of informal "house churches" which began as Bible study groups but have swelled into large congregations.
The crackdown on China's larger house churches began in Shanxi province's Linfen city in September, with the demolition of a church and arrest of two pastors. This month it spread to Beijing and Shanghai.
Eight days ago Beijing's Shouwang congregation was forced to hold their Sunday service outdoors during a snowstorm after government officials had intervened to prevent property owners from renting or selling them any premises.
Yesterday 800 of Shouwang's mainly young and professional followers were authorised to use a university auditorium, but preachers were prevented from leaving their houses to attend.
One preacher negotiated his way past police and plain-clothes security officials to arrive 90 minutes late, into the arms of elated church leaders. The Shouwang congregation has attempted to keep a low profile and its leaders did not accept interviews yesterday.
"The Government wants unregistered churches to go back to the mode of operation where they remain small, take place in apartments, and are not very public in their practice," said Carsten Vala, of Loyola University, Maryland, who has researched China's registered and unregistered Protestant churches.
"Most important is how the rank and file react to the Government stopping their meetings," he said. "In Chengdu they have continued to meet, and that presents a real problem for the Government."
The Obama Administration has chosen a quieter and more targeted approach to human rights advocacy than many of its predecessors, as it tries to forge co-operation on global issues such as minimising climate change and rebalancing the world economy.
Professor Fan claimed he spoke for "many, many human rights activists in China" in saying Mr Obama was "the weakest US president on human rights in 30 years". But Professor Fan also said that pressure from the White House had directly led to the release of the prominent human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong in August.
Mr Xu attended the Shouwang church congregation yesterday, telling the Herald: "I'm just going in for a look".
Behind the scenes, US diplomats say their Chinese counterparts have doggedly fought to prevent Mr Obama from engaging directly with any Chinese activists or the broader population during this week's visit. "They're concerned I will meet foreign leaders and journalists and expose the truth about China," said Mr Zhang, the detained home church alliance president in Nanyang.
The US diplomats say China has backed away from a previous understanding that Mr Obama would address a "town hall-style" public gathering in Shanghai today which would be broadcast nationwide.
China is now allowing it to be broadcast only in Shanghai.
Tonight Mr Obama heads from Shanghai to Beijing, where there will be no press conference. Professor Fan urged him to lend his weight to strengthen the position of China's house churches.
"If the Communist Party wins this battle in the coming three months then democracy in China will be a long, long time coming," he said.
"But if the [Communist] party loses this battle in the coming three months then house churches will become a very important cornerstone for Chinese civil society."