Following the demolition of one of the largest churches in an eastern Chinese city dubbed "China's Jerusalem", the local authorities have reportedly widened a campaign to tear down or modify at least nine others while detaining several church members. The actions are raising concerns that they could mark a wider crackdown on Christianity and other organised religions.
At least four churches in the coastal province of Zhejiang were razed in the past two weeks, reported the British newspaper The Telegraph on Monday. This comes in the wake of the bulldozing of the eight-storey Sanjiang Church on April 28 in Zhejiang's Wenzhou, a city with one of the highest concentrations of Christians in China.
Another five churches in the province had their crosses taken down or covered up, according to Texas-based China Aid, which offers legal counsel to Christians in China. It said on Tuesday that "the number of churches facing demolition or modification is rumoured to be closer to 50".
At least seven Christians including church elders and missionaries in Zhejiang have been put under house arrest or detained on charges apparently linked to the church demolitions, say China Aid and believers in Wenzhou who posted the information on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo.
Activists like China Aid president Bob Fu call these moves an escalation of severe crackdowns "against Chinese citizens' religious freedom". This has prompted concerns about whether the government is targeting organised religions, seen by some leaders as a potential threat to the Communist Party's grip on power.
Last week, Beijing released a national security alert on terrorism, warning that the "infiltration of religion has constituted a threat to Chinese identification with socialist belief".
It called the spreading religious beliefs a serious challenge to social stability.
Indiana-based Purdue University academic Yang Fenggang predicted this year that China could be home to the world's largest number of Christians with 247 million believers by 2030. This forecast has been questioned by the nationalist newspaper The Global Times, which cited an unnamed official as saying the estimate is "unscientific and obviously an exaggeration" and adding that China allows freedom of beliefs.