Beijing: The top pastor of an underground Protestant church in China has been detained by police, a rights group said on Sunday, as a widening crackdown on dissent appeared to spread to religious figures.
Jin Tianming, a senior pastor of Beijing`s Shouwang church, an unregistered Protestant congregation, was taken away by police late Saturday night, the US-based China Aid group said.
Jin`s detention came after the church called for an outdoor worship meeting following a similar gathering last Sunday that resulted in police rounding up nearly 170 church followers, most of whom were later released.
The action against the church comes amid a growing crackdown on dissent across China in which artists, lawyers, writers, activists and intellectuals have been detained for allegedly calling for "Jasmine" rallies, similar to those that have rocked the Arab world.
The Shouwang church, one of Beijing`s largest "underground" churches, was forced outdoors after the government blocked the rental of its previous place of worship and prevented it from buying a new meeting place, China Aid said.
The church has adamantly denied it has any links to the Jasmine rally calls.
Beijing police refused to comment on the detention of Jin and other senior church leaders.
Church members were not immediately available to comment, but Twitter Internet postings by followers said Sunday`s designated meeting place was under a police lockdown and that worshippers were unable to gather in large numbers.
"All of the church leaders including pastors and elders as well as deacons are now under house arrest," China Aid said.
"We urge the Chinese government to restrain from using violence to further escalate the conflict with peaceful Shouwang worshippers who ask for nothing but religious freedom alone."
China has detained at least 54 dissidents, activists and others in the ongoing crackdown on dissent, highlighted by the recent detention of famed artist Ai Weiwei, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders said on Friday.
The latest to be taken into custody include Ni Yulan, an outspoken wheelchair-bound activist for housing rights, and her husband Dong Jiqin, the Hong Kong-based group said in a statement.