China: House churches barred from holding services over Olympics period

A number of house church leaders in China have been forced to sign a written agreement declaring that they will not hold services whilst the Olympic Games take place in Beijing.

The document was put together by Chinese government officials, according to China Aid Association (CAA), a ministry that works to support China's persecuted believers.

The agreement asks the house church leaders to "refrain from organising and joining illegal gatherings and refrain from receiving donations, sermons and preaching from overseas religious organisations and groups", reports CAA.

The prohibition, however, restricts the house church leaders well beyond the Olympics, spanning three months in total.

CAA said that house church members would be subject to disciplinary action from the Chinese Government if they failed to adhere to the agreement.

A spokesperson for the group called the document "a blatant challenge to the international community" and its calls for greater religious freedom in China, and evidence of China's "hypocrisy" and "apathetic stance" towards realising full human rights for its citizens.

"If China is seeking to put on the mantle of a world superpower, it must first acknowledge the unalienable rights of its own people," the spokesperson said.

Persecution watchdogs Open Doors and Release International have invited Christians to pray for members of unofficial house churches over the Olympics period.

They and CAA are among a number of rights groups warning of a crackdown by the Chinese Government on the house church movement during the Olympics.

China's poor track record on human rights has come under the intense scrutiny of the international community prior to and during the Games.

US President George W Bush prodded Chinese President Hu Jintao on religious freedom during a four-day visit to China last week that mixed sports and diplomacy.

On Sunday, President Bush and his wife took part in a service at a state-sanctioned church in Beijing after which he declared "God is universal, God is love and no state, no man, or woman should fear the influence of loving religion".

A Chinese social activist was allegedly detained by police whilst on his way to the church, whilst three American Christians were last week removed from Beijing's Tiananmen Square by Chinese police and deported back to the US after staging a peaceful protest and prayer vigil calling on China to uphold religious freedom.