Hundreds of police dismantle cross at Wenzhou church, while fire guts Ningbo cathedral
'Illegal structure' dismantled in Wenzhou; blaze guts Ningbo cathedral
Associated Press and Agence France-Presse in Beijing
Hundreds of police took down a church's cross yesterday in Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem" because of its many houses of worship, amid a crackdown on church buildings in the Zhejiang provincial city.
Evangelist Qu Linuo said he and about 200 others had rushed to the Longgang Huai En Church to protect the building, but peacefully made way for the police, who used a crane to remove the three-metre red cross from its steeple.
The 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. Photographs posted on social media showed parishioners holding banners reading: "Anti-graft, anti-corruption, protect religion."
A man at the county's public security office said he knew nothing about the incident and the Longgang police did not answer phone calls.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ningbo, a fire largely destroyed one of the mainland's oldest churches, state media reported, gutting the inside of the late 19th-century structure.
"The inside of the building is totally destroyed," a firefighter told Xinhua after the blaze at the gothic-style Jiangbei Cathedral.
"It's a great loss. The church is such a beautiful building."
The Ningbo cathedral, built by a French bishop in 1872, is an important cultural relic protected by the state.
No casualties were reported, the report said, and an investigation was under way.
Xinhua quoted a member of the church's staff as saying that the fire began at the altar, although the man, who was staying in the building, did not know how it began.
The authorities in Zhejiang province have taken away or threatened to remove crosses at more than 130 Protestant churches in what they say is a crackdown on illegal building structures.
In a few cases, the government has even demolished religious buildings.
Officials say they are enforcing building codes, although often they won't specify which ones.
They also deny they are specifically targeting churches and point to the demolition of tens of thousands of other buildings, religious and non-religious, that have apparently broken regulations.
Analysts and church leaders in the province 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, but the country also has vast numbers of believers who meet in secret.
The US-based Pew Research Centre estimated 58 million Protestants in the country practised the religion in 2011, along with nine million Catholics the year before.
Some experts say the total could be more than 100 million.
Parishioners at another church in Wenzhou last week 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 bleeding from head injuries.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse