BEIJING Seventeen churches in China have appealed to China's lawmakers to provide legal protection of religious freedom after police detained dozens of Christians from a Beijing church that has been trying to hold outdoor services.
The petition, delivered on Wednesday by hand to the National People's Congress -- China's rubber-stamp parliament -- was the first of its kind and the boldest statement by the nation's "house churches" to the central government.
It comes as the United States has sharply criticised China for its crackdown on dissent.
China has jailed, detained or placed in secretive informal custody dozens of dissidents, human rights lawyers and protesters it fears will challenge Communist Party rule.
"We have observed the conflict between state and church unfolding recently in our capital Beijing and have so far seen no sign of the conflict being resolved, therefore...we are lodging this petition," said the document, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
"House churches" started as Bible study groups that often grew into large congregations, spawning fears in China's ruling party that they could undermine its grip. But those worries eased in many areas in recent years, and many such churches are now much bigger than can fit into a normal house.
The petition, which was addressed to the standing committee of the National People's Congress and its chairman, Wu Bangguo, demanded an investigation into the treatment of the Shouwang church.
The Shouwang -- meaning 'watchtower' -- church has been trying to hold outdoor services for a month since its landlord terminated a rental agreement, which members blamed on official pressure.
Following the church's call to worship outdoors, Chinese authorities put several of the church's leaders under house arrest and forbade them to participate in services on Sunday.
The petition also called on China's lawmakers to propose a new law for the "protection of the liberty of religious faith."
"The members of this organisation have tried repeatedly to gather illegally in the streets. To maintain public order and security, the public security departments have taken the appropriate measures," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular news briefing, referring to Shouwang.
China's State Council, the cabinet, did not respond to a faxed inquiry from Reuters.
"I don't particularly expect there to be religious freedom immediately," said Wang Yi, a leader of a church in Chengdu in southwestern Sichuan province and a signatory to the petition.
"The problem now is that in the conflict between church and state, the government has resorted to means that are more and more unlawful. There is no regard for rule of law."
Estimates of how many Chinese people are Christian vary widely, but surveys in recent years reckoned there could be around 40 million Protestants and 14 million Catholics, of an official population of 1.34 billion.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ken Wills and Daniel Magnowski)