Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan, is shown here in an undated photo. (Photo public domain)
Human Rights Watch has called on Chinese authorities to immediately release a pastor accused of subversion and scores of members of an independent Protestant church in the southwestern city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.
They should also return church properties and allow the members to resume worship services, the New York based group said on Dec.14.
On Dec. 9 and 10, police in Chengdu arrested Pastor Wang Yi and more than 100 congregants of the Early Rain Covenant Church.
Early Rain is considered an "underground" church because it is not registered with the government.
"The shutdown of a Protestant church in Chengdu epitomizes the Xi Jinping government's relentless assault on religious freedom in China," said Yaqiu Wang, the Human Rights Watch's China researcher.
"It makes a mockery of the government's claim that it respects religious beliefs."
Authorities also ransacked and sealed Early Rain Covenant Church's properties, including its offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a Bible college, and searched the homes of many congregants.
The police also forced church members to sign a pledge that they would not attend the church again and blocked them from going to the church schools.
The church's accounts on China's social media platform WeChat were also removed.
Some church members, later released, said police had beaten them and that dozens of church members remained in police custody, the rights group said.
The pastor, Wang Yi, was being held on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power," according to his mother.
Wang Yi, a prominent member of China's Christian community and a former legal scholar, is known for making impassioned sermons and being an outspoken critic of the Communist Party.
Shortly before his arrest, Wang Yi had published an essay critical of the government's tight control over religion, and called on China's Christians to carry out civil disobedience, such as resisting government orders not to preach outside of church premises or to prohibit children from attending church.
Two days he was taken into custody, a statement he had drafted in anticipation of being detained was posted online.
In it he vowed to "use peaceful means … to resist every and all governmental and judicial measures that persecute the church and interfere with Christian belief."