BEIJING, Nov 14 (Reuters) China has launched a secretive campaign against unregistered Christian ''house churches'', an overseas rights group said, citing a document from a local government warning against religious ''infiltration'' from abroad.
The Texas-based China Aid Association, which condemns Beijing's controls on religion, issued what it said was a confidential directive from Jingmen City in central China revealing a nationwide campaign against churches gathering in believers' homes without government approval.
''Attack criminal activities acting under the guise of Christianity and prevent hostile external forces exploiting Christianity to carry out infiltration,'' the document, on the Association's Web site (www.chinaaid.org), reads.
It said that central authorities held a meeting on ''Christian affairs'' earlier this year that opened a nationwide crackdown on unregistered churches -- many of them evangelical Protestant groups that have spread in the countryside.
China's ruling Communist Party is wary of religious and other groups that could challenge its grip. But in recent years it has relaxed some controls on Christians -- provided they register and accept official surveillance.
Chinese officials say the country has up to 20 million Protestants, but estimates by some experts and overseas groups claim up to 60 million or more, many in unregistered groups.
The apparent document indicated that the authorities in Duodao District, Jingmen, wanted to crack down on uncontrolled worship while minimising outright confrontation with believers.
''We must avoid exacerbating conflicts or creating new ones,'' the document said, calling for persuasion and ''education'' to bring churches into line.
A spokeswoman for China's State Administration for Religious Affairs said that she was not aware of a concerted campaign against unregistered Christians or of a meeting on the issue.
''The task of dealing with these churches is a constant one, not a one-off,'' said the official, who did not give her name.
''It's not a matter of outright banning these activities, but they must take place in areas that have been specifically set aside for religious worship and meet other conditions.'' REUTERS SV KP0947