Authorities in northern China’s coal country this week demolished a well-known Christian megachurch, underscoring long-standing tensions between religious groups and the officially atheistic Communist Party. Witnesses and overseas activists said the paramilitary People’s Armed Police forces had used excavators and dynamite to destroy the Golden Lampstand Church in the city of Linfen in Shanxi province on Tuesday. ChinaAid, a US-based Christian advocacy group, said the local authorities planted explosives in an underground worship hall to demolish the building. The church, which has a congregation of more than 50,000, has long clashed with the government. Hundreds of police and hired thugs smashed the church and seized Bibles in an earlier crackdown in 2009 that ended with church leaders receiving long prison sentences. Want to escape poverty? Replace pictures of Jesus with Xi Jinping, Christian villagers urged There are an estimated 60 million Christians in China, many of whom worship in independent congregations like the Golden Lampstand. The surging popularity of non-state-approved churches has angered local authorities, who are wary of any threats to the party’s rigid political and social control. The church had previously been accused of violating land agreements and building codes – charges that are commonly brought against unregistered churches. Millions of Christians, Buddhists and Muslims also worship in state-sanctioned assemblies. Why China’s war on Christmas is gathering pace An official at the local religious affairs bureau denied on Thursday that the demolition took place, but pictures distributed by ChinaAid showed the church’s steeple and cross toppled in a large pile of rubble. A local pastor at a nearby church, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he saw large numbers of paramilitary police blanketing the area on Tuesday around the church, which was being taken apart by heavy machinery. He later heard, but did not witness, a loud explosion, the pastor said.