Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have detained seven Christians on suspicion of crimes including "embezzlement" and public order offenses after they tried to prevent government-hired workers from demolishing a cross on their church.
They include Protestant pastors and married couple Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang of the Holy Love Christian church in Zhejiang's Jinhua city.
Local police tweeted that they had found jewelry and cash in the couple's home, commenting that the apparently honest preachers led "greedy lives."
And the local Jinhua Daily newspaper reported that the couple were accused of misusing donations made to the church by the congregation, and had had their license to work as pastors revoked.
China is home to an estimated 60 million Protestant Christians, some 23 million of whom are members of the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as required by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
An official who answered the phone at the Three-Self Patriotic Movement offices on Wednesday confirmed the couple's detention.
"I don't know anything about whether their licenses have been revoked," the official said. "But if they're already behind bars, why would they not revoke them?"
The official said the organization is unlikely to pursue the matter, now that a legal process is under way.
"That's not the most important issue here," the official said.
Asked how they could be so sure the couple are guilty when they have yet to stand trial, the official replied: "It's been in the newspapers already. Why do you still not believe it?"
Others also held
Some 16 pastors and church members were also detained in and around Wenzhou city in Zhejiang during confrontations with the authorities over the cross removal program last week, church members told RFA.
The remainder have since been released, a defense lawyer for some of the detainees said on Wednesday.
"They detained more than a dozen people, and some of them have now been released unconditionally," lawyer Chen Jiangang said. "But there are still at least eight people under criminal detention."
"The police haven't informed me of anything, and they won't allow us to visit them," he said.
Only Bao and Xing have been allowed meetings with lawyer Liu Weiguo, while police have threatened the families of the remaining detainees with retaliation should they hire lawyers to defend their loved ones.
They were forbidden to discuss the details of the case against them, fellow attorney Zheng Xiang said.
"There was no communication on the details of the case," Zheng said. "There were [staff members] present on both sides of the glass the whole time."
"In terms of the case, this meeting was totally meaningless."
One cross is burned
Meanwhile, in Zhejiang's Leqing city, members of the Shanqian Church hit out at the authorities after their cross caught fire during the removal process, which is often carried out using a blow-torch.
Photos of the demolition posted online by church members showed a police cordon around the church and a smoldering and charred cross lying by the roadside.
A resident of nearby Beibaixiang township said the burning of the cross had left many Christians feeling angry and humiliated.
"I went by Shanqian this morning, and the cross on the church had been burned off," the woman, also a Protestant believer, told RFA.
"All of the congregation is feeling very upset, because it's a question of might is right, so there's nothing we can do about it," she said.
"A lot of crosses got taken down, but only one was burned."
One person tweeted via social media: "It's a humiliating and disgusting thing for Christians for a cross to be burned."
Civil disobedience campaigns
Churches have pledged to carry out civil disobedience campaigns in the face of a widespread cross demolition campaign launched in Zhejiang and its provincial capital Wenzhou, dubbed "China's Jerusalem" for its large Christian population.
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.
According to the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Zhejiang authorities said they are merely “relocating” the crosses from the roofs of churches to the interior, “for the sake of safety and beauty,” it quoted local religious affairs officials as saying.
The Beibaixiang resident said members of her church were already praying and fasting after hearing that the cross on their church is also scheduled for demolition.
"We have all been praying for the past few days, morning, noon and night," she said.
Over a thousand removed
The authorities have removed an estimated 1,200 crosses prominently displayed on churches in Zhejiang since last year, according to reports compiled by RFA.
A resident of Leqing surnamed Zhang said the authorities had focused at first on the most prominent crosses near major highways.
"Last year they got rid of all the bigger crosses, and this year they are taking down all the smaller ones," Zhang said.
He said his church had preemptively removed their cross from the roof.
"When all this blows over, we'll put it up there again," Zhang said, adding: "But they can't demolish the cross in our hearts."
President Xi Jinping warned 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.