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Chinese Christians - Copyright Ricky Wong / REX
World News

Crosses removed from Chinese churches for 'safety'

by Hannah Tooley

The Communist party says the removals are for "the sake of safety and beauty," according to one government official.

Human rights campaigners have accused the campaign of being 'anti-church', and claim it is designed to slow the rapid growth of Christianity in the country, especially in Zhejiang province in eastern China, where the increase in believers has been particularly large.

China is home to around 100 million Christians according to The Guardian newspaper, compared to the Communist party's 88 million members.

Since 2013 hundreds of places of worship have had crosses removed, and some churches have been demolished altogether.

Authorities had previously said they were attacking illegal building practices and not religion itself.

Reports from the country also suggest that civil servants have been banned from practising religion, and there is suspicion this could be a smaller project before a full-scale crackdown.

But an official from the heavily Christian Zhejiang province's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau told a Chinese state newspaper that the government "merely relocated the crosses out of safety concerns."

The official added that church staff had even been supportive of the removals.

There has been open opposition in the region though, with groups taking to the streets to protest about the removal policy.

Earlier in the week Catholics in Wenzhou, an area known as "China's Jerusalem", released an open letter stating that the removals had gotten "out of control."

It read: "Our diocese has been patient and reasonable - again and again we have shown tolerance, prayed, communicated and observed, hoping that the haze would clear.

"But they have not stopped. Rather, they have escalated the campaign and have rushed to attack the cross, the symbol of peace and love."

News coming out of China suggests removals and demolitions have increased in pace in recent weeks in the face of such protests.

Commenting on the situation Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas, said: "The ongoing campaign to forcibly remove crosses and demolish churches in Zhejiang has had a profoundly negative effect on Catholic and Protestant churches in the province.

"Many church leaders have patiently and repeatedly tried to negotiate and enter into dialogue with the local authorities; the protests and petitions by leaders and lay Christians are a sign that their concerns have not been addressed.

"Instead, the authorities persist in eroding all trust between the government and the churches by forcibly removing the symbol of the Christian faith.

"CSW joins Zhejiang Christians in calling on the authorities to cease immediately the removal of crosses and other actions against registered and unregistered churches.

"At the same time, we remain deeply concerned by the wave of arrests, interrogations and disappearances of lawyers and activists since 10 July. We urge the government to release all lawyers, activists and other individuals still detained, and to allow the legal community to defend their clients without disruption, intimidation or threats."

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