A huge church purportedly built with nearly £2 million raised from local worshippers in one of China's poorest regions has been demolished by authorities, the latest flashpoint between religious groups and the officially atheist Communist Party.
The Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, a city of 4.3 million, was one of China's many unregistered "house churches", meaning they are not sanctioned by the Chinese regime and are therefore constantly persecuted.
The local religious affairs bureau yesterday denied the demolition took place but pictures from US-based Christian group ChinaAid showed the steeple and cross in rubble.
A church in northern China's coal country that once served as the worship center for more than 50,000 congregants is no longer standing. Hundreds of police and hired thugs smashed the building and seized Bibles in an earlier crackdown in 2009 that ended with the arrest of church leaders.
China Aid noted that on September 13, 2009, when the building was under construction, church members who slept at the site to guard it were awakened by 400 officials who beat them and razed the building.
This is the second time in the past month that a church has been demolished in the area.
Freedom of worship was harshly restricted past year in China, where authorities "physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups", the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released in August.
"China repeatedly cracks down on house churches, which are churches that refuse to register, often to opt out of government monitoring".
Yang Rongli, who has been under government surveillance since her release in 2016, described the demolition Tuesday to a China Aid reporter.
The church's two pastors were arrested in 2009. Patrol wagons guarded the church.
"My heart was sad to see this demolition and now I worry about more churches being demolished, even my own".
According to the state-run Global Times newspaper, the church building was demolished because it lacked the necessary permits and had violated building violations.
The church was surrounded by the authorities beginning Sunday, Jan. 7, with its congregation blocked from entering the building and warned by local police to "stay away".
"A Christian offered his farmland to a local Christian association and they secretly built a church using the cover of building a warehouse", a government department official was quoted as saying.
"The repeated persecution of Golden Lampstand Church demonstrates that the Chinese government has no respect for religious freedom or human rights", ChinaAid President and Founder Bob Fu said. Last December, the only Catholic Church in Zhifang, a village near Shaanxi, was destroyed for no apparent reason, 20 years after it opened, according to Asia News.