Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have detained a top Beijing rights lawyer who was advising local Christians in their bid to resist the demolition of crosses from local churches.
Zhang Kai had recently been based in the coastal city of Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem," to offer 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.
"They did it on the quiet, in the middle of the night," a member of Xialing Church in Wenzhou told RFA on Wednesday. "They didn't tell anybody in our church that this would happen."
"By the time we got there, he had already been taken away."
The church member said many people were concerned about Zhang's fate.
"He was acting as adviser to more than 100 churches," he said.
A second Protestant church member from the region said Zhang was detained at the same time as a group of preachers and pastors.
"They moved in simultaneously in different locations," the church member said. "They took the preachers at the same time as Lawyer Zhang."
A police officer who answered the phone at the nearby Lucheng district police department in Wenzhou declined to comment.
"I haven't received any information about this," the officer said.
Call for release
Meanwhile, the head of the Xinqiao law firm in Beijing, Yang Xingquan, issued a statement on Wednesday condemning Zhang's detention.
He said two legal assistants had been detained at the same time by the Wenzhou authorities, and called for their immediate release.
Yang said he planned to travel to Wenzhou in a bid to inquire after the detainees and to represent them.
Wenzhou police also held preachers Wei Wenhai, Zhou Jian and Cheng Congping of the city's Tengqiao Protestant parish on Wednesday for questioning.
Yongqiang parish preacher Wang Yunxian and pastor Yan Xiaojie of the Divine Evangelist group were also summoned, apparently for questioning.
And the wife of Zhang Chongzhu, a pastor from Wenzhou's Pingyang county, said her husband had been taken away on Wednesday by state security police.
"He was taken away on a summons ... at around 1.00 p.m.," Zhang's wife said, adding that no reason was given by officers who took him away.
"Pastor Hua Licheng was also placed under house arrest today," she added.
Civil disobedience campaign
Churches have waged widespread civil disobedience campaigns in the face of a cross demolition campaign launched by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Zhejiang in recent months.
The removal is part of a three-year urbanization and beautification campaign, which orders local governments to "revise" old neighborhoods, old industrial sites, and urban villages and demolish illegal structures by the end of 2015, official media have said.
Zhejiang authorities have said they are merely “relocating” the crosses from the roofs of churches to the interior.
But churchgoers have written open letters, sung hymns to armed security officers, staged sit-ins in churches and on rooftops, and displayed small red-painted wooden crosses across the province in protest at the move.
Churches are also being subjected to audits and financial reviews, with some pastors detained on suspicion of "embezzlement" after they resisted the demolition of crosses.
Xu Songgui, a youth leader at the Tianchang church in Wenzhou's Zeya township, said that "Document No. 7" issued by the Wenzhou municipal government had ordered the audits.
"They came here yesterday to check through our accounts," Xu said. "We have to finish the audit by Aug. 28."
He said the audits were unprecedented.
"Such a thing has happened here in more than a dozen years," Xu said. "I don't know if the civil and religious affairs bureau even has the right to check our accounts under law."
But he said the church is cooperating nonetheless.
"This is a priority document, which means that any attempts to obfuscate or cover up could lead to criminal prosecution," Xu said.
President Xi Jinping warned ruling Chinese Communist Party ideologues 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.