A plan by Christians in Zhejiang province to hold a protest today over a government campaign to remove crosses from their churches is likely to be called off, a church leader said last night.
Police had called several pastors and warned them against joining a silent protest outside Pingyang county's government offices in Wenzhou , the pastor said.
"I received a call from a senior officer from Pingyang county police station to ask whether I was the main organiser of tomorrow's silent protest, which they said would put everyone in trouble because it's illegal," the pastor said last night.
The police calls had led other church leaders to also withdraw from the protest, the pastor said.
Leaders from 135 churches in Pingyang county, which are all members of the officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches and the China Christian Council, had originally agreed to join the protest. Wenzhou has one of the highest concentrations of Christians on the mainland.
About 360 crosses and one church have been torn down in Zhejiang since January in the "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign, said China Aid, a US-based religious rights group.
Opponents say the campaign amounts to religious persecution, while local government officials argue the initiative only targets "all illegal buildings, not just churches".
"The cross is sacred and inviolable for all Christians. It's definitely a humiliation for us to take down crosses from our churches," another pastor in Pingyang said.
"We are very angry, but the local authorities threatened us not to send anyone to petition Beijing or talk to overseas media.
"We decided on a silent protest because we have no other way to go."
The provincial government's demolition campaign received international coverage and criticism from religious rights organisations after the Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou was torn down in April.
"We have repeatedly sent representatives to try to negotiate with the authorities, asking them which rules our churches have violated and we will try our best to correct it, but all of our requests have fallen on deaf ears," a third pastor from the county said.
Church leaders have vowed to continue their campaign to protect the crosses. A source close to the county government said officials had been told that a provincial leader would visit Pingyang on an inspection tour on June 28 to assess progress in removing crosses that breach regulations.
"That's why the county government and police are so anxious to watch us closely," another church leader in the county said.
"We have pledged to protect our cross. We will take it down from the top of our church when the Communist Party takes down its party flag."
Watch: A Sunday service in Zhejiang province where the government wants to ban crosses