Demolition teams began destroying parts of a Chinese church that has become a symbol of resistance to the Communist Party’s draconian clutch on religion, activists and witnesses said on Monday.
Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city known as the "Jerusalem of the East", made headlines earlier this month when thousands of Christians formed a human shield around its entrance afterplans for its demolition were announced.
Church members accused Communist leaders in Zhejiang province of ordering an anti-church crackdown and claimed there were plans to completely or partially demolish at least 10 places of worship.
Officials rejected those accusations, alleging the church had violated building codes.
After mounting their high-profile occupation in early April, many protesters withdrew from Sanjiang church after its leaders appeared to have negotiated a compromise with the government.
Picture of the felled church
However, that deal appears to have broken down in recent days with reports that some church leaders and worshippers had been harassed and detained by security agents and officials.
On Monday morning demolition teams began tearing down parts of the church in Wenzhou, a city around 230 miles south of Shanghai that has one of the country’s largest congregations.
“I saw three or four excavators out front, demolishing the church, and three or four out back, demolishing the annex building. I also saw a small excavator going inside the church doing demolition work inside,” said one witness who claimed there were around 100 police around the church, including armed officers.
Church members told The Telegraph authorities had attempted to silence the congregation
“All the roads are blocked, you can't get close to the church,” said a local Protestant leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government. “The two sides of the main hall are being demolished.”
Photographs sent to The Telegraph and posted on social media sites showed at least four excavators that appeared to be ripping down large sections of the church’s exterior.
Other images showed black police vans, military trucks and security agents standing on the main road outside.
It was not immediately possible to verify those pictures. Nor was it clear whether authorities planned to destroy the entire church, which has a large red cross on its spire, or just part of the structure.
Church members told The Telegraph authorities had attempted to silence the congregation and said they believed their communications were being monitored. “My phone is not safe,” said one.
Bob Fu, a US-based Christian activist, said: “This government-orchestrated barbaric forced demolition represents a serious escalation against religious freedom in Zhejiang. The Chinese regime chooses to disregard its own laws and the will of its best citizens.”
Church members accused Communist leaders in Zhejiang province of ordering an anti-church crackdown
The demolition of Sanjiang church would “definitely further erode the little remaining trust between millions of Chinese Christians and the Chinese government,” added Mr Fu, president of the Texas-based group China Aid.
“History has proved and will prove again with this case that another church revival will happen after this new wave of persecution.”
In an unusual step, Chen Yilu, the head of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, spoke out against the provincial government’s “crude and hard-line” handling of the Sanjiang church crisis.
In a strongly-worded commentary that has been circulating online, Mr Chen said the incident would damage the Communist Party’s image as well as harming “social stability”. He called on Beijing to “intervene as soon as possible to avoid further deterioration”.
Provincial authorities deny they are waging an orchestrated campaign against Christian places of worship. However, Feng Zhili, the head of Zhejiang’s ethnic and religious affairs committee, complained earlier this year that Christianity’s spread had been “too excessive and too haphazard”.
Other images showed black police vans, military trucks and security agents standing on the main road
In a recent interview Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, said he believed the Asian country could overtake Brazil, Mexico and the United States to become the world’s most numerous Christian congregation by 2030.
However, Prof. Yang warned that Chinese Christians should brace themselves for growing interference as the Communist Party fought to stunt the Church’s growth.
One of the Party’s most senior officials hit out at those predictions last week, in an indication of Beijing’s discomfort at the rapid growth of Christianity.
Ye Xiaowen, a member of the elite 205-member Central Committee, dismissed Prof. Yang’s projections as “unscientific” and “obviously inflated”.
“It is completely meaningless to predict how many people might believe in Christianity in China in the future,” said Mr Ye, who was the country’s top official in charge of religious affairs until 2009.
Asked to comment on Monday’s demolition, a propaganda official from Zhejiang’s Communist Party Committee said, “I don’t know” before the line went dead.