Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have removed another cross from the roof of a prominent Protestant church in Wenzhou city, known as "China's Jerusalem" for its high concentration of Christians.
The cross on the roof of the Xialing church in Wenzhou's Lucheng district came down on Monday evening, defying a bid by two elderly members of its congregation to prevent it, church members told RFA on Tuesday.
"They arrived at about 7 p.m., maybe five or six people [in the demolition team], but there were a lot of plainclothes police there too," a church member who asked to remain anonymous said.
Photos of the demolition posted by ChinaAid Christian rights group founder Bob Fu showed personnel in protective hats and uniforms with a large red cross that had been at the highest point of the church building.
"Shame! Wenzhou Xialing church's cross was demolished last night!," Fu wrote in a Twitter post.
The demolition gang visited when there were few people about to prevent them, the Xialing church member said.
"Everyone was eating dinner at the time, and there were only a handful of people in the church," the church member said. "They were done by around 10:15 p.m."
"Now they have sealed off the entire church and nobody can get in," the church member said. "A lot of people have gathered there and there have been some minor scuffles."
Church members said the group had declined to identify themselves when asked.
Repeated calls to the Lucheng district religious affairs bureau resulted in the sound of a fax machine during office hours on Tuesday.
City authorities issued a demolition notice to the Xialing church on Nov. 11, and followed it up with an ultimatum that the church should remove its cross by Monday or it would be removed by the authorities.
"They have been threatening to do this for more than a year, and we didn't believe they would actually do it," the church member said.
"There were two or three of our congregation on duty at the time, and they called us to say the demolition team had already shoved their way in."
A new cross to go up
Xialing members said they plan to put a new cross up in defiance of the order.
In August, police detained a top Beijing rights lawyer who was advising local Christians, including the Xialing church, in their bid to resist the demolition of crosses from local churches.
Zhang Kai was taken away after he offered pro bono advice to more than
100 Protestant churches facing the removal of their crosses and the detention of pastors, lay preachers, and church members.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has launched a three-year "urbanization and beautification" campaign in Zhejiang, ordering local governments to revamp old neighborhoods, industrial sites, and urban villages and to demolish "illegal structures" by the end of 2015.
Zhejiang authorities have said they are merely “relocating” the crosses from the roofs of churches to the interiors.
Local Christians have staged sit-ins in churches and on rooftops, sung hymns to security guards, written letters of protest and displayed small red-painted wooden crosses across the province in protest at the move.
Church members say their groups are also being subjected to audits and financial reviews, with some pastors detained on suspicion of "embezzlement" after they resisted the demolition of crosses.
U.S. Chinese Church pastor Guo Baosheng said the cross demolition program, initiated under the administration of President Xi Jinping, is motivated by political ideology.
"This shows that the political ideology behind the demolition of crosses will continue, as part of the campaign for the sinification of Chinese Christianity," Guo said.
"[They want to] minimize the social impact of Christianity, and slow down its rapid rise."
Guo said Beijing sees China's current style of Christianity as a western import, with church buildings that imitate the Gothic style of church architecture.
"[They have] tall spires with crosses high up," he said. "The government wants to change all that."
He said the demolition of the Xialing cross suggests the program is nearly complete in Wenzou.
"They see their campaign of suppression in Wenzhou as highly successful, because they have managed to wipe out all opposing and protesting voices, detaining, chasing away or buying them all off."
President Xi Jinping told a party ideological conference earlier this year that the development of religion in China, which is already closely controlled by an army of religious affairs officials, should be "independent of foreign influence."
Citing the rapid expansion in Christian believers since churches began to reopen in the wake of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Xi has described religion as a tool that can easily be used "by hostile foreign forces."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.