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via CNN

The site of a planned outdoor Easter service at one of China’s largest independent “house” churches was eerily silent Sunday as police blocked more than 500 worshippers from leaving their homes and detained more than 36 for attempting to attend religious services in Beijing, church officials said.

The gathering place for worshippers was empty as church-like bells sounded in northwest Beijing. Hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed police officers swarmed the site of Shouwang Church and prevented CNN journalists from accessing the area.

Authorities confiscated credentials from CNN crew members and detained them for half an hour.

Worshippers spent several months preparing for the Easter service, according to members who spoke with CNN. Police on the scene told CNN they were stationed there for “security reasons.”

Shouwang Church’s senior pastor Jin Tianming is currently under house arrest by the authorities.

“More police have come to stand watch in front of my door in anticipation of Easter,” Jin told CNN in a phone interview. “I’ve spoken to several of my fellow worshippers who attempted to attend our planned service this morning,” but some were detained, Jin said.

“But we will not change our plans. We will not change our decision to worship as this is a matter of faith,” Jin said.

A few worshippers were seen praying with bowed heads near Shouwang’s proposed site for the service, but the site itself was sealed off by law enforcement. Vigilant plainclothes officers filmed passersby.

Shouwang means “to keep watch” in Mandarin.

Usually hundreds of worshippers gather at this illegal “house” — or unofficial — church, which is one of the largest Christian gathering places in the country. Shouwang Church is an unregistered Christian group that was forced outdoors after authorities blocked the rental of its previous office space in November, the church said. It has not been able to obtain a new location since.

“This is the worst time in terms of religious freedom across the board in two decades,” said Bob Fu, a former independent church pastor and founder of the non-governmental organization China Aid. Fu has been speaking with Shouwang worshippers unable to attend the service.

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Article courtesy cnn.com