Authorities in the central Chinese province of Henan have demolished the cross of a major Protestant church ahead of its Christmas celebrations, congregants said Friday.
Several hundred demolition workers and officials arrived at the Nanle County Church on Tuesday, dragging away two volunteers on duty there before sealing it off to prevent anyone from entering, and tearing down the cross from the roof, they said.
"A lot of people came, including police and riot police, as well as plainclothes cops and officials from the county religious affairs bureau," pastor Zhao Junling told RFA. "They ripped down the cross that evening."
"They have blocked up the big doors and the smaller doors with cement and bricks, so we can't get in. There's nothing we can do," he said.
He said one of the volunteers inside the church when the authorities arrived was dragged away by more than 30 officials, while a second was persuaded to leave by police.
Zhao, whose predecessor Zhang Shaojie was handed a 10-year jail term on public order charges in July following a long-running property dispute with the local government, said the congregation now lacks a venue to celebrate Christmas.
Zhang's lengthy jail term for "fraud" and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" surprised many observers, as the communist government officially allows Christians to only worship in such churches, while unregistered congregations tend to be targeted for official harassment.
Far from being a "house church," the Nanle church is a long-established and officially sanctioned group, and Zhang is a former president of the government-sanctioned Protestant association and adviser to the county People's Political Consultative Conference.
Zhang's family fled to the United States, soon after he was jailed, via an underground railroad of Christians and human rights activists in Southeast Asia.
The Nanle crackdown shows that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is becoming less and less tolerant of organized religion, even in its state-approved form, rights activists said.
The Chinese authorities had been cracking down on Zhang's government-approved Nanle church for about a month before his detention in November 2013 following a land dispute that pitted the popular preacher against the county government.
Elsewhere in Henan, Anzhuang Church near Nanyang city is facing demolition as authorities put its leaders under pressure to register with the government's Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid reported.
Officials visited the church on Dec. 4 to tear down the wall surrounding the church, but their work was hampered by church members on guard there, the group said in a statement on its website.
"The township government said our newly-built church is illegal because it occupies some farmland," it quoted an Anzhuang church member as saying. "Now, the two sides are at a stalemate."
The church was recently completed by the community at a total cost of U.S.$322,000, and the church owns a legitimate lease to land, its supporters say.
Meanwhile, authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang look set to continue their cross demolition program ahead of Christmas near Wenzhou city, where authorities have launched an intense campaign to limit the more visible manifestations of the region's large Protestant population.
A worshiper at Zengshan Church in Wenzhou's Pingyang county said volunteers are keeping watch on the church around the clock after being warned that their cross had been slated for demolition.
"There are people on guard at the Zengshan Church right now because it's one of the last [to have its cross removed]," a Protestant congregant from Pingyang county said on Friday.
"A lot of the parishes are getting together to mount guard, taking it in turns and working shifts."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.