China's 'Jerusalem' targets party members with religious beliefs

SHANGHAI (AFP) - The city known as China's centre of Christianity, Wenzhou, has launched a crackdown on Communist Party members with religious beliefs, the local government said, following tighter regulation of church buildings.

Wenzhou's party committee said it would expel members who put religious beliefs ahead of ideology in a "rectification" campaign, according to a document posted online on Thursday.

The city, dubbed "China's Jerusalem", is believed to have more than a million Christians.

"Those who lack ideals and beliefs, lose party concepts, do not have the qualifications for party members (and) will resolutely be expelled," the document said.

China's ruling party is officially atheist and bans its members from belief in any religion

Last year, Wenzhou authorities demolished the Sanjiang Church, following government claims that it was an illegal structure.

Authorities have also removed crosses from churches across Zhejiang province, which includes Wenzhou, and plan to limit the size of crosses on religious buildings.

The Wenzhou party committee said a "small number" of Communist officials were engaged in religious worship, particularly in the city's education and public health sectors, but gave no details.

The Communist Party keeps tight control over religion for fear it could challenge its grip on power, requiring believers to worship in places approved by the state and under government supervision.

Activists fear a year-long campaign by Zhejiang to crack down on churches it deems to be violating building codes is part of a wider move targeting religious worship.

The state-linked China Christian Council estimates that the country has around 20 million Christians, excluding Catholics.

But the true number of worshippers could be higher, at least 40 million to 60 million, according to some estimates, as some pray at "underground" or "house" churches which seek to exist outside government control.