Authorities in China have slapped a travel ban on more than 100 Protestant Christians en route to a religious training event in South Korea, RFA has learned.
State security police at airports in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou issued the travel bans on the grounds that the would-be participants in a conference run by a U.S.-based Baptist church on Jeju Island were "likely to damage national security."
Conference organizers the Institute of Leadership Research had invited more than 100 delegates from Protestant "house churches" not officially recognized by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
A Chinese Protestant pastor who was to have run the training program, but who declined to be identified, said the Chinese church members were turned back at the airport and refused permission to board their flights, including from Hong Kong.
They were then told to go home to receive a full explanation, he said.
"This training was sponsored by me, it was intended to train some underground church members," the pastor said.
"But on Oct. 25, almost all the people who had signed up for the training were detained by state security agents in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong."
"The reason given at the airports is that they may endanger national security," he said. "As far as I know, the largest group of people were those stranded in Shanghai, and heavy economic losses were sustained."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party is pushing ahead with an ever-widening crackdown on religious activity, in particular among government employees, including schoolteachers and medical personnel.
The administration of President Xi Jinping has launched an ever-widening nationwide operation targeting unofficial "house churches" across China for closure and demolition, church followers say.
Schools in Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Henan have asked students to register any religious beliefs, hospital employees have been forced to sign pledges that they have no religious affiliation, while the authorities are carrying out a census of churches, their sources of funding, and possible links to overseas organizations.
"We hope that the international community can support us because the government's actions are really harsh," the anonymous pastor said.
"It's even worse than during the Cultural Revolution," he said in a reference to the open political violence and kangaroo courts under late supreme leader Mao Zedong, from 1966-1967.
Guo said the travel bans are likely the result of the atheist Chinese Communist Party's new religious management regulations introduced last year, which call on the authorities to strengthen controls on underground churches, particularly those sending their members overseas to participate in religious gatherings and training.
"This incident shows that the Chinese government has further intensified its persecution of Christianity," Guo told RFA. "The regulations on religious affairs issued by China last year specifically talked about intensifying controls on believers participating in meetings or training abroad."
He said Protestant "house church" members had previously been allowed to go abroad to participate in such events.
"However, since Xi Jinping called for the Sinicization of religion, the party's control and suppression of religious figures including Christians in the underground Christian church have been stepped up further," he said.
The new rules, which came into effect in February, require strict controls on the financial affairs, publications, online publicity, and overseas links of Chinese house churches.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.