SHANGHAI (AFP) - Chinese Christians have asked the government to halt what they claim is an orchestrated campaign to demolish churches, a United States-based religious rights group said.
The China Aid Association said worshippers in the eastern province of Zhejiang had urged the local authorities to stop dismantling crosses and churches on the grounds that they violate building codes.
Thousands of worshippers flocked to the Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou city last week to protect it from demolition, the group said in a statement Wednesday.
China's Communist Party keeps a tight grip on religion out of fears it could challenge its grip on power, requiring followers to worship in places approved by the state and under government supervision.
Wenzhou is known both as a centre for private enterprise and as a thriving Christian community. It has more than a million Christians, according to state media.
Citing "Christians familiar with the matter", the state-backed Global Times newspaper said on Thursday that the government had ordered at least five churches in Zhejiang - four of them in Wenzhou - to be demolished or to remove prominent crosses from their rooftops.
The orders apparently apply to state-backed churches, it said, and not "underground" churches which seek to exist outside the authority of the government.
"We call on (the) Zhejiang provincial government to immediately terminate their operation of demolishing the crosses and churches," the China Aid Association quoted a letter from Christians in Wenzhou as saying.
"This operation is not properly conceived, would intensify social conflicts and is harmful to the otherwise long peacefulness and unity in China," it said.
Local officials could not be reached for comment by AFP.
A Wenzhou religious official denied any government campaign to demolish churches and remove crosses, saying it was aimed at illegal structures which present safety hazards, the Global Times said.
Authorities had limited the Sanjiang Church to 1,881 sq m but the finished building was roughly four times the size, it said, adding the church had agreed to remove part of its annexe to settle the row.