Authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang have detained a pastor of a major Protestant church after he clashed with the authorities over the demolition of its cross, rights groups said.
Pastor Gu Yuese, also known as Joseph Gu, of the Chongyi Protestant Church in Zhejiang's capital Hangzhou, is incommunicado along with his wife, 10 days after being fired by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which groups churches sanctioned to practice by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The pastor was taken into custody [on Thursday] and placed under 'residential surveillance in a designated location,'" the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid said in a report on its website.
"Additionally, family members believe that the pastor’s wife, whom they have been unable to contact, was also taken into police custody," it said.
Family members and staff at the Chongyi Church received official notification of Gu's detention, but with no information about his location or that of his wife, Zhou Lianmei.
An employee who answered the phone at the Chongyi Church in Hangzhou on Friday said church members feel powerless to help Gu.
"There are all kinds of rumors flying around, but you need to pay attention to official statements coming out of Chongyi Church. Don't believe anything else," the employee said.
"We can't comment. All we can do is pray, because we don't know what the authorities are doing."
According to ChinaAid, Hangzhou police also searched the couple's home, and the group said it expects a formal arrest to follow.
"His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses,” ChinaAid president Bob Fu said in a statement.
"He [is] the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution," Fu said.
An official who answered the phone at the Three-Self Patriotic Association in Hangzhou denied that Gu had been criminally detained.
"He hasn't been criminally detained. Who told you that?" the official said. "He is just helping with an investigation, but we don't know any more than that."
A Protestant church member in Hangzhou told RFA that Gu was likely talking to police about "certain financial matters."
"It's complicated," the church member said. "We're not sure what it's about, and I'm not a church leader or a member of the association."
"I am hearing all kinds of rumors but I can't just comment randomly."
Calls to the Zhejiang provincial religious affairs bureau went unconnected during office hours on Friday.
A Zhejiang pastor who declined to be named said Gu's detention comes amid a months-long campaign by local authorities to demolish visible crosses from the roofs of churches in and around Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem" because of its large Christian population.
"There are demolitions going on every day now," the pastor said. "They are saying that its because they are illegal structures, and there's nothing we can do about it for now."
"Our phones are all being monitored, and we are all very concerned," the pastor said. "They move in suddenly and we can't resist them, because Christianity preaches nonretaliation."
"This is all politics ... We have tried talking to the government, but they don't have any choice either, because they are under pressure from higher up."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.