■ As Christians around the world celebrate one of the most important festivals in their calendar, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has continued to place restrictions on Christian worship over Christmas, with many believers under surveillance or warned off holding large, public services.
"Churches in Beijing are keeping a low profile and only informing their own members [about Christmas services]," Beijing-based Protestant church member Zhang Shengqi told RFA on Thursday. "They won't be inviting too many outsiders to join them."
|A young Chinese worshipper attends Christmas Eve mass|
at a church in Beijing on Dec. 24, 2014.
"The government isn't ready to accept large services run by house churches yet," Zhang said, referring to unofficial Protestant churches that haven't joined the party's official Three-Self Patriotic Association of approved Protestant groups.
He said his church had tried to book larger venues to hold Christmas services in 2012 and 2013 in Beijing.
"Before long, we got a call saying the police wouldn't allow us to go ahead, and that we couldn't hire the venue," Zhang said.
"A lot of churches are holding their services ahead of Christmas Day, for example on the evening of the 24th. We have a ceremony tonight as well, but we shall have to see how it goes," he said.
In the southwestern province of Guizhou, authorities detained a pastor of the Huoshi church in Guiyang city on suspicion of "illegally revealing state secrets," his lawyer said on Wednesday.
Pastor Liu Hua, also known as Li Guozhi, was taken away on Dec. 9, lawyer Chen Jiangang told RFA.
"I requested a meeting with him on Dec. 21, but the detention center refused to allow it, saying they were acting on instructions from police," Chen said.
Liu's wife said police had also searched the family home, confiscating computers, disks and other devices.
She said the church had now been banned, and wouldn't be allowed to gather in any numbers this Christmas.
"We won't be able to go [to our old venue] and we won't be allowed to hold a big event," Liu's wife said. "We can only celebrate in our homes, or other places designated by the government."
An officer who answered the phone at the Nanming district police department in Guizhou declined to comment. "I don't know about this," the officer said.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, Protestant pastor Sun Weili said churches in the city have come under increasing pressure from the authorities to remove visible crosses, and to join the Three-Self Association in recent months.
"Christmas is a time of rejoicing for us, and we are all preparing our activities," Sun said. "I have heard that other churches have run into harassment, but so far we haven't."
"Perhaps it's because we are too small ... we are being very cautious, and we won't be doing anything too ambitious," he said. "We have put on a bigger event in the past, and we received a warning."
"People felt that this was wrong."
No gospel spreading
Meanwhile, Beijing-based Xu Yonghai, who heads the Beijing Sheng'ai Protestant Family Church Fellowship, said Christmas services at state-approved churches are likely to go ahead as normal.
But he said the government is increasingly concerned that more and more Chinese people are becoming interested in Christmas, even if it is only the more commercial aspects of the holiday.
"We see Christmas trees up in the big hotels, and Christmas displays in the shops [now]," Xu said. "But this has nothing to do with spreading the gospel."
"In the past, we would get up early to spread the gospel and hand out leaflets, but the police found out about our plans this year, and have told us not to do that in future."
"They said they would have to start detaining us if we didn't stop that."
He said some people still put Christian pamphlets on parked cars on the quiet, however, or handed them surreptitiously to passers-by.
"But if the police find out about it, they will get into trouble," Xu said.
He said his church would hold an all-night vigil on Christmas Eve. "But this can't be done openly," he said. "We can't spread the gospel openly."
"You can do that all around the world and nobody will stop you, people will even encourage you, but here we don't have that option."
While China's estimated 46 million Christians celebrate Christmas, often in the face of official raids and harassment, the secular, consumer-oriented side of the holiday is also becoming popular around the figure of Santa Claus, particularly among younger people.
However, the majority of Chinese travel home to eat a special meal with their families on the traditional Chinese New Year holiday, which falls this year on Feb. 7.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.