A prominent underground church in southwestern China was raided by police on Monday afternoon, hours before a planned evening service to commemorate the Tiananmen Square anniversary.
The bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters is a taboo for the ruling Communist Party and any discussion of the issue is strictly censored in Mainland China.
Attempts at a public commemoration are often punished by the mainland authorities with harassment, detention or imprisonment and Hong Kong remains the only place in China where large-scale events are allowed.
The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, had planned a two-hour prayer session at 7.30pm to mourn those killed in Beijing 29 years ago.
But soon after 3pm dozens of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers stormed the church, taking away its pastor Wang Yi, along with his wife and more than a dozen preachers and worshippers, members of the church told the South China Morning Post.
The couple were released sometime after midnight, a member of the church said.
Since 2009, the church has designated the period between May 12 and June 4 its “prayer month” to remember the natural and man-made disasters that have hit China on those two dates.
May 12 was the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008 while June 4 was the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
Previously the church has only been able to hold a June 4 service when the date fell on a Sunday, and in other years members have gathered in small groups for prayers.
However, one church member said this was the first time the church had been raided on the day of the anniversary.
Wang, who like other politically sensitive figures is closely watched by police on June 4, has always been prevented from leading services on that date and was usually confined to his home.
The church remained shut on Monday evening, with large numbers of police officers – both uniformed and plain-clothed – still outside keeping watch at 8pm.
The reason given by the police was that the church was not approved or registered, and thus has no right to organise religious activities.
Members of the congregation said the officers in question were from a local station in the Qingyang district.
The police declined to be interviewed, saying their investigations were not open to the media.
A notice issued by the Qingyang ethnic and religious affairs office was put up on the church gate, saying it had violated the newly revised Regulations on Religious Affairs.
Officially, only state-approved religious organisations are allowed to operate in China, but the growing Christian community ensures that numerous “house churches” thrive, despite close monitoring and periodic harassment from the authorities.
The Early Rain Covenant Church, founded in 2005 by Wang – an outspoken former civil rights lawyer – is one of the most prominent house churches in China.
It was also raided last month, the night before a planned service to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake – the deadliest in China for three decades.
On that occasion Wang was taken away by the police and released on Saturday night after about 24 hours in detention.
Speaking after Monday’s raid, one member of the church, who declined to be named, said: “It is not that we want to discuss politics. It is because of our faith that we cannot allow ourselves to dodge such a huge crime.”