HONG KONG —
A senior pastor at a church in Hangzhou, China has been replaced and put under investigation for embezzlement, adding to fears of a growing crackdown on Christianity. Observers are speculating the replacement was due to his opposition to the relocation of church crosses or church demolitions in Zhejiang province.
Zhejiang Province is home to at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Chinese Christians, and is often referred to as China’s Jerusalem.
However, a spate of arrests over the last few months, combined with a long running official campaign to remove hundreds of crosses and even demolish some churches, has raised concerns about religious freedom in the region.
Late last month, police detained leading pastor Li Guanzhong and his wife. Their arrests followed the detention of Gu Yuese and his wife. Gu was the senior pastor of the 10,000 member Chongyi church – the largest government-approved Protestant church in China.
Prior to his detention, China’s state-approved religious groups, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the China Christian Council, forcibly removed Gu from his post, with authorities saying he is being investigated for corruption.
A pastor in Hong Kong, who prefers to remain anonymous to protect his contacts on the mainland, said Gu’s arrest surprised many throughout China’s Christian community.
“I met the man before. He seems to be honest and highly respected. A very good man, a very spiritual man,” the pastor recalled. “He had a lot of contacts throughout China, both at the house church Christians as well as the official church.”
Campaign against Christians
The arrests come against the backdrop of an ongoing campaign against Christian crosses in Zhejiang. Since 2013 the government has forcibly removed more than 1,500 crosses from churches, claiming they are too large and violate building codes.
FILE - A woman prays with other villagers during a mass in the morning at the Liuhe Catholic Church in Liuhe village on the outskirts of Qingxu county, northern China's Shanxi province, Sept. 11, 2011.
Gu was one of many church leaders who publicly opposed the destruction of the crosses.
Bob Fu, President of ChinaAid, which provides legal counsel to Christians in China, believes Gu’s arrest is retribution for his public protests. “Well that’s the political revenge, using the charges to punish the government-sanctioned pastors for their public opposition against the forced demolition,” he stated.
Chinese authorities, who have not commented on the recent arrests, detained more than 250 lawyers, church leaders and activists last year for opposing the cross demolitions. Church leaders say the crackdown followed years of relative religious freedom in Zhejiang, when Chinese authorities allowed Christianity to spread and flourish.
Carsten Vala, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University, said the government appears to be taking a different tack in the region now.
“The arrest of Joseph Gu has been linked to his opposition to this destruction of churches and removal of crosses. So to put this into a larger perspective, it seems that the Chinese government is trying to reduce the visibility of Christianity in society,” said Vala.
ChinaAid is reporting another Zhejiang pastor, Huang Yizi, was released from house arrest this week after spending five months in detention while under investigation for endangering national security.