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CHENGDU, China, December 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In an apparent effort to silence a prominent Protestant underground church, Chinese officials arrested approximately 100 members of Early Rain Covenant Church this weekend in a series of coordinated raids, taking numerous Christians from their homes and streets.

The raids began with church members’ social media accounts and group chats being blocked and the church’s telephone line being cut Sunday evening, the South China Morning Post reports, and spanned several districts of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan.

“The scale was unprecedented,” church elder Li Yingqiang said.

Early Rain is a “house church,” or underground church that operates without the government’s approval, and as such has been targeted by the regime in the past, particularly because it operates more openly than most other unsanctioned churches.

Assistant deacon Zhang Guoqing was among those arrested. He was released Monday morning, but is currently under 24-hour surveillance in his home. Zhang explained to the Post that he went to see pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong Sunday evening after hearing of the raids, but found their home “ransacked” and the couple absent.

“The police said our church is an illegal organisation and we cannot attend any more gatherings from now on,” he said.

The BBC reports that Wang and his wife have been charged with inciting subversion of state power, punishable by 15 years in prison. Wang is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s restriction and surveillance of religion.

Wang respects authority and is “not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China,” but is “filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime,” he wrote in a letter released by the church after his his arrest, written in advance of a potential arrest. “As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God.”

The Post adds that several church elders remain in hiding, while other members have been asked to sign a letter promising not to attend further Early Rain gatherings.

“Christians are the remaining NGO's (non-governmental organization) in the shrinking civil society in China,” Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion in China, told CBN News. “Under Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, they are really trying to establish a totalitarian rule of Chinese society and the Christians are standing in the way of totalitarianism, so that's why they've become a target.”

The crackdown comes as officials in the city of Langfang have issued a sweeping ban on Christmas sales, decorations, and public celebrations. Officials claim the ban is merely to prevent the buildup of litter ahead of a city management review, but critics suspect its true purpose is to further suppress religion in the atheist, Communist state.

“The United Front Work Department of the [Communist Party of China] Central Committee has provided active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society… religions in China must be Chinese in orientation,” the department’s Zhang Yijiong declared last year.

Despite the escalation of the state’s anti-religious agenda, Li Yingqiang says Early Rain will not be intimidated.

“Even if we are down to our last five, worship and gatherings will still go on because our faith is real,” he told the Post. “Persecution is a price worth paying for the Lord. We would rather live through it than to hide our faith and we hope more Chinese churches will speak up and stand with us.”