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China's pre-Christmas Church crackdown raises alarm

A recent surge of police action against churches in China has raised concerns the government is getting even tougher on unsanctioned Christian activity.

Among those arrested are a prominent pastor and his wife, of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan. Both have been charged with state subversion.

And on Saturday morning, dozens of police raided a children's Bible class at Rongguili Church in Guangzhou.

One Christian in Chengdu told the BBC: "I'm lucky they haven't found me yet."

China is officially atheist, though says it allows religious freedom.

But it has over the years repeatedly taken action against religious leaders it considers to be threatening to its authority or to the stability of the state, which, according to Human Rights Watch, "makes a mockery of the government's claim that it respects religious beliefs".

The government pressures Christians to join one of the Three-Self Patriotic churches, state-sanctioned bodies which toe the Communist Party line and are led by approved priests.

Despite this, the Christian population has grown steadily in recent years. There are now an estimated 100 million Christians in China, many of them worshipping in so-called underground churches.

Wang Yi is the leader of one such church, the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, the capital of south-western Sichuan province.

The church is unusual in that it worships openly and regularly posts evangelical material online. The church says it has about 800 followers spread across the city. It also runs a small school.

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