BEIJING - Hundreds of police took down a church's cross last week in a city known as "China's Jerusalem" for its many houses of worship amid a crackdown on church buildings in a coastal region where thousands of people are embracing Christianity.
Evangelist Qu Linuo said he and about 200 others had rushed to the Longgang Huai En Church in the eastern city of Wenzhou to protect the building but peacefully made way for the police, who used a crane to remove the 10-foot-tall red cross from its steeple.
Authorities told the church the cross violated building height limits, and returned it to the parishioners, who wept and prayed around it, said Qu, who is a member of another church. A man at the county's public security office said he didn't know anything about the incident, and the Longgang township police didn't answer phone calls.
Across Zhejiang province, where Wenzhou is located, authorities have toppled or threatened to topple crosses at more than 130 Protestant churches. In a few cases, the government has even razed sanctuaries.
Officials say they're enforcing building codes, although they won't specify which ones. They also deny they are specifically targeting churches, and point to demolition of tens of thousands of other buildings, religious and non-religious, that have apparently broken regulations.
But experts and church leaders in this province south of Shanghai, the only one where the incidents are happening, say the government appears to be trying to suppress the fast-growing religion.
Official 2010 figures put the number of Christians in state-sanctioned churches at 23 million believers, but the country also has vast numbers of believers who meet in secret. The Pew Research Center estimated 58 million Protestants in the country practiced the religion in 2011, along with 9 million Catholics the year before. Some experts say the total could be more than 100 million.
The church's dramatic growth, and Christians' allegiance to God above all else, has alarmed authorities, said Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University sociologist and leading expert on religious matters in China. It was difficult to imagine what sort of building codes the crosses would violate.
"The only reason I can think of is that the Zhejiang authorities intend to humiliate Christians by taking down the symbol sacred to them," he said.
The province may have come under scrutiny because it is home to Wenzhou, where more than a tenth of residents are Protestant Christians, the highest proportion of any major Chinese city, according to Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist who has studied and written a book about Christianity in Wenzhou.
Half the province's 4,000 churches are located here, he said, partly a legacy of early missionary efforts here.
Known for its entrepreneurial vigor, Wenzhou has tens of thousands of small family-run workshops making shoes, toys and other products. Believers here appear to have applied that same eagerness to starting new churches, Cao said.
The cross removals and demolitions reflect the occasional flexing of political muscle by authorities to show who's in control, he said.
Last week, parishioners at another church in the city successfully protected their cross from hundreds of police, said Zheng Changye, a 36-year-old member of another church. He said three people suffered serious injuries in the clash with police, and photos posted online showed several people with blood.
On Monday, other photos posted on the China social media site Weibo showed parishioners at the Longgang Huai En Church praying on its steps and holding banners reading, "Anti-graft, anti-corruption, protect religion."