Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have stepped up a clampdown on Christian places of worship in the region, with dozens of groups receiving notification that crosses must be taken down from buildings.
Local officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party are targeting any crosses that are visible from state highways and railway lines, according to local sources.
Within days of the demolition of the the Yahui church's cross in Pingyang county near Zhejiang's Wenzhou city last Friday, some 40 churches in Pingyang and neighboring Cangnan counties have been informed that their crosses will be next.
The demolition of the more visible and ostentatious signs of Christian worship in affluent Wenzhou is part of an ongoing "three reforms and one demolition" political campaign to lower the profile of Protestants in an area where they have more money and visibility than in many other places in China.
"I think these demolitions are pretty threatening," one Protestant worshipper, who asked not to be named, told RFA on Tuesday.
He said the authorities reserve the right to label as "illegal" buildings that lack a complete set of official paperwork.
"They deliberately only give you an incomplete set of permits, so it's very hard to get all of the permits needed to build a church in China today," he said.
He said such practices mean that churches can simply be designated "illegal structures" whenever it suits the authorities to demolish them.
"In the case of Yahui church, they were given the choice of taking down the cross or demolishing the entire facility," the man said. "So they were forced to take down the cross."
He said few Christians in China wish to tangle with the authorities, so such demolition orders often go unchallenged.
"They don't dare to obstruct [the authorities]," he added. "They will bring in the armed police and the riot police as soon as you get even slightly organized."
"They will likely say you organized a violent resistance; that has happened a lot."
'A serious mistake'
Chinese rights lawyer Yang Xin hit out at the campaign via his account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
"The demolition of crosses in Zhejiang is a provocation and an insult to the world's two billion Christians," Yang wrote. "It is a violation of the Constitution and the rule of law."
Yang told RFA in a later interview that the government had yet to come up with a rationale for the targeting of crosses.
"I don't really know what the actual reason is," he said. "But I can say that they are making a serious mistake."
"The 'three reforms, one demolition' campaign is just an excuse," Yang said.
According to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, the authorities have demolished dozens of churches and crosses as part of the campaign since the beginning of the year.
But pastors have been repeatedly summoned for questioning by police and religious affairs bureau officials, should their congregants stage peaceful protests or try to impede demolition work, Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post reported on Monday.
Last month, more than 50 human rights lawyers, unofficial Protestant house church leaders, and scholars issued a statement calling on Beijing to stop interfering in its citizens' religious affairs.
The statement, issued by Purdue University Center for Religion and Chinese Society in Indiana, said Chinese nationals trying to follow their own religion often experience "misunderstanding, violation, discrimination, and persecution" at the hands of the authorities.
The statement hit out at bureaucratic controls on specific religious practices, which are often enforced by party officials based in mosques and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.