Catholics in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi are holding a silent sit-in in protest at the demolition of a church famous for its holy water, and further demolitions planned in Shaanxi's Fengxiang county, RFA has learned.
Around 200 people have been sitting in quiet protest outside a church in Moujiaping near Baoji city since a demolition team arrived to demolish an unofficial Marian shrine there on Wednesday morning.
Local authorities have dispatched around 600 police and government personnel to the scene, but they had failed to dismantle the church by Thursday evening, local church members said.
A source close to the protest declined to comment, but confirmed that "the church is fine," when contacted by RFA on Thursday.
"I can't talk to you now ... I have to hang up now. I hope you understand," the source said.
According to the Catholic website AsiaNews, the standoff was sparked by demands from the local government's religious affairs bureau that the whole of Fengxiang County Catholic Diocese join the Catholic Patriotic Association under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
One church has already been demolished in the county, and there are plans to raze at least three more, sparking anger among their followers.
Han Yuanjin, the bishop of Shaanxi province who has been endorsed by both the Vatican and the Catholic Patriotic Association, said that Fengxiang is vulnerable because of its refusal to toe the party line.
"It is inevitable that there will be confrontation," Han told RFA. "I heard that the government wants to resolve this quickly. I also want to solve this problem quickly.
"[I am] hoping to get an effective solution to the problem, including compensation," he said.
Han called on Catholics in Fengxiang to learn more about the official church and communicate more with the government "so that the Catholic Church can develop smoothly in China."
He said a recent accord signed between Beijing and the Vatican has enabled Catholics to be recognized by both their own government, and the wider church.
"Joining the Patriotic Association no longer requires that you break off the relationship with the pope, so there has been a great change, there," Han said. "But there has been no change in the understanding of [Chinese Catholics]."
Repeated calls to the Fengxiang county minority and religious affairs bureau and the county government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
An employee who answered the phone at the Baoji municipal government declined to comment, saying only that they would pass on questions. No reply to RFA's questions had been received at the time of writing.
'Violence against the parish'
According to AsiaNews, authorities in Fengxiang demolished the Qianyang Catholic Church, which was built with donations and served an impoverished rural congregation of some 2,000 people to whom it provided grassroots medical care.
It said the Diocese of Fengxiang, led until 2017 by Monsignor Luke Li, "is the only diocese where neither the faithful nor the bishop are members of the Patriotic Association."
"Some observers think that violence against the parish is a way to force the diocese to apply the new religious regulations and to have bishops and priests enrolled in the Patriotic Association," according to an article on the AsiaNews website.
It said the church at Qianyang had a reputation for "miracles ... attributed to the holy water in the parish ... that is used as a physical and spiritual remedy for humans and animals."
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wu Jing for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.