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BEIJING (Reuters) - Tears flowed at one of Beijing's biggest "house" churches when some 300 Chinese Christians prayed on the last Sunday before they face eviction from their makeshift place of worship, pressed by officials wary about religion outside of their grip.
The Shouwang Church, with about 1,000 members, is one of the biggest Protestant congregations in Beijing that has expanded beyond the confines of churches registered and overseen by the ruling Communist Party's religious affairs authorities.
But the Party is wary about any potential unrest, and this gathering of neat middle-class and student Christians has been told by its landlord that it can no longer worship at the "Old Story Restaurant," with its walls lined with pictures of Chinese Party leaders shaking hands with former U.S. presidents.
Church leaders warned that unless the church can find a new home, its members may be forced to worship outdoors, a risky step in this nation where big gatherings often attract official scrutiny and can be broken up by police.
"This is the cross that the church has to bear," Pastor Jin Tianming told the worshippers about the prospect of worship outdoors. Some of them wiped tears from their faces.
"We need a formal approval from the authorities to allow us to find an indoor meeting place. If not, we will not waver in worshipping outdoors."
Members of the church told Reuters that they did not see themselves as political activists or foes of the government. But the pressures they face shows the extent of China's recent crackdown on dissent and potential sources of unrest.
"Some people may face getting caught, may have to stand trial or may even be sentenced," You Guanhui, an older pastor told the congregation about the possibility of gathering in a park or other public place.
"God, we especially want to plead to you as we face these dangerous trials. Please find a way out for us."
China has arrested and detained dozens of lawyers, bloggers and dissidents after the online calls for pro-democracy "Jasmine" gatherings.
On Sunday, prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a combative critic of Party censorship, was stopped by police from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, his assistant told Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Police also searched Ai's studio in Beijing, according to Pu and messages on Ai's Twitter account.
Ai could not be contacted on his phone.
In recent years, restrictions on "house" churches across China eased, allowing them to grow and become more settled.
These churches started as Bible study groups that often grew into large congregations, sparking fears in China's ruling Party that they could undermine its grip. But those fears eased in many areas in recent years, and many such churches are now much bigger than could fit into a normal house.
There are 40 to 60 million Protestants in China, divided between the official and unregistered churches, according to Carsten Vala, a Maryland-based professor at Loyola University who specialises in Chinese Christians.
The eviction is the latest chapter in a long series of restrictions on the Shouwang church, which started out as a "house church" in a rented apartment in 1993. It holds three services every Sunday, partly because even the restaurant cannot hold all the members at the same time.
When pressed to register with the government Administration for Religious Affairs, the Shouwang church declined, said Cao Zhi, a Shouwang church member in his thirties who works for a non-government group.
"Traditionally, home churches haven't been willing to register, because the church is considered to belong to God," said Cao, a former journalist.
Since then, the church has been evicted from rented premises many times. In 2009, the last time it was kicked out of its place of worship, the church assembled in a park in a snowstorm. Promise Hsu, a church member, said about 700 to 800 people turned up.
In 2009, the church raised 27 million yuan ($4.12 million), in donations from members and tried to buy a space in a commercial building as a permanent home. But authorities pressured the seller not to hand over the property to the church, even though it had paid for it, church members said.
"As citizens and worshippers, we've fulfilled all our duties and just want to worship," said Cao, the church member.
"Churches need their own homes so they can develop. Why can companies buy their own places but not churches?" ($1 = 6.548 yuan)
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley; Editing by Andrew Marshall