BEIJING — Two days before Christmas, members of a rural Christian congregation in the eastern city of Wenzhou welded some pieces of metal into a cross and hoisted it onto the top of their worship hall to replace one that was forcibly removed in October.
Within an hour, township officials and uniformed men barged onto the church ground and tore down the cross.
"They keep a very close watch on us, and there is nothing we can do," said a church official, who spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because of fear of government retaliation. "The situation is not good, as any attempt to re-erect the cross will be stopped."
That means that the worshippers in Wenzhou, like many Christians in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, will worship this Christmas under a cross-less roof. Provincial authorities have toppled crosses from more than 400 churches, and even razed some worship halls in a province-wide crackdown on building code violations.
Many Christians say their faith has been singled out because authorities, wary of its rapid growth, are seeking to curb its spread in a campaign that has targeted China's most thriving Christian communities.
Estimates for the number of Christians in China range from the conservative official figure of 23 million to as many as 100 million by independent scholars, raising the possibility that Christians may rival in size the 85 million members of the ruling Communist Party.
In August, Beijing rounded up Christian pastors and religious scholars in a national seminar with the edict that the Christian faith must be free of foreign influence but "adapt to China," a euphemism for obeying the Communist Party's rule.
This week, authorities in Wenzhou — known as China's Jerusalem because it has half of the province's 4,000 churches — have banned all Christmas celebrations or related activities in the city's kindergartens and grade schools.
"We had guidance on foreign holidays such as Christmas in the past, but this year marks the first time we issued a clearer notice," an education official was quoted as saying in a local, government-run newspaper on Wednesday.
Churches in Wenzhou and elsewhere in Zhejiang were first told last year to turn off any spotlights shining on their crosses at night. A few months later, the congregations were ordered to remove the crosses or face forced demolitions.
Resistance by local Christians has led to violent protests, bloody clashes and arrests of pastors and churchgoers. At least two people — one pastor and one churchgoer — remain in police custody for their acts to defend the cross, said Zhang Kai, a Christian rights lawyer.
When one rural village re-erected a cross in the summer, authorities put it under a 24-hour watch, which has now gone on for nearly five months.
"This year's Christmas has been exceptional, as a group of uniformed men have been helping us move tables, direct traffic, and guard holiday decorations as well as the front door, the back door, the warehouse and the sanctuary," church pastor Tao Chongyin wrote on a social media site.