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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go, next, to China, where practicing your religion can be a political act. Yesterday, more than 100 Chinese Christians were detained because they were praying - outdoors. The country's state-run media described the gathering as illegal and accused the Christians of trying to politicize religion. The arrest come days after the United States expressed concerns about a crackdown against underground churches across China.

NPR's Louisa Lim, in Beijing, was there when the Christians were arrested.

LOUISA LIM: This confrontation had been brewing for weeks. With a congregation of about a thousand people, Shouwang Church is one of Beijings biggest unregistered or house churches. It had been allowed to operate. But the church has been unable to find a space to meet in, a fact they blame on government pressure. In desperation, church elders announced they would meet outdoors. But as the day dawned, elders were forbidden from leaving their homes, and the chosen meeting place was sealed off and surrounded by police officers.

So the worshippers split into smaller groups. About 20 people walked to a nearby park, where they began their service.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

LIM: They sang of painful dark despair, and how faith had given them hope. More people kept arriving and joining the others. One young man, who asked that his name not be used for his own safety, came with news that five friends had been detained.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) At first I wasnt scared. Now that Ive heard people are being taken away, I am a bit scared.

LIM: As the worshippers prayed, a policeman appeared in the distance, speaking into his walkie-talkie. I asked the young man whether it would be worth it, getting arrested for this.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) As long as they dont hang any other labels on me. If they say I was detained for my faith, it would be worth it. But if they say there are other political factors that would be far from the truth.

LIM: Then men in black jackets started to arrive, wearing earpieces, carrying walkie talkies: the plainclothes security agents. Theyve been more visible in the past few months, as China moved to ensure online calls for an Arab-style Jasmine Revolution did not bear fruit. On this day, the worshippers prayed on, their eyes shutting out the world, their voices never wavering.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The young man spoke up in prayer. Our brothers and sisters have been detained, he said, but I thank God for this place to worship.

All the while, the net of security was slowly closing in. As the service ended, the inevitable happened.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Go go go, shouted the police. The worshippers were herded to a bus. Church leaders had told them not to resist arrest. Let them take us away, just like a lamb to the slaughter were the words used in a letter to the congregation. Meanwhile, my presence was causing a stir.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Plainclothes security demanded ID. I told them I was a journalist for a US news organization. As they manhandled me, I threatened to call the U.S. Embassy.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: You think Im scared of the U.S. Embassy? One spat out. They cant control me: the words of one plainclothes thug.

But in the week that China shrugged off the U.S. human rights report, those words seemed almost symbolic. Sam Zarifi from Amnesty International says the message is clear.

Mr. SAM ZARIFI (Amnesty International): The gloves are off. Theres no question that at this point, Chinese authorities are sending all signals to their own citizens, and at this point quite overtly to the U.S. and the outside world, that the Chinese authorities will simply not tolerate any group that is, not just critical, but does not directly obey the Chinese communist partys control.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

LIM: One hundred sixty-nine worshippers were detained, according to the U.S.-based China Aid Group. It says they were interrogated, and some asked to sign documents promising not to worship outdoors again. Its not clear if all have been released. I was detained briefly, as were two other foreign journalists. This is just one small scene in the Chinese governments struggle to reassert its control. The willingness to send in the police against praying Christians once again underlines Beijings obsession with stability and that it no longer seems to care what the outside world thinks.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

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