HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Chinese police officers demolished one of the country's largest evangelical churches on Tuesday (Jan 9), using heavy machinery and dynamite to raze the building where more than 50,000 Christians worshipped.
The Golden Lampstand Church in the northern province of Shanxi was one of at least two Christian churches demolished by authorities in recent weeks.
Global Times, a state newspaper, described the building's destruction as part of a "citywide campaign to remove illegal buildings," and quoted an unidentified official as saying that the church had been "secretly" constructed without proper permits and was initially disguised as a warehouse.
Critics, however, described the move as part of a national effort to regulate spiritual life in China.
Members of the megachurch have previously clashed with authorities, including in 2009 when the police confiscated Bibles and imprisoned several of the congregation's leaders.
On Tuesday, officers of the People's Armed Police, a state paramilitary organisation, detonated explosives in the church's underground sanctuary and destroyed the rest of the building, according to ChinaAid, a US watchdog group that monitors religious freedom in China.
"The repeated persecution of Golden Lampstand Church demonstrates that the Chinese government has no respect for religious freedom or human rights," said Bob Fu, the group's founder.
ChinaAid said that the building was built by married evangelists Wang Xiaoguang and Yang Rongli with nearly US$3 million (S$3.9 million) in contributions from local Christians, but that it had never been registered with authorities, a legal requirement.
Officially, Chinese citizens are free to practice the religion of their choice, but the government tightly controls spiritual life.
On Dec 27, authorities also demolished a Catholic church in Shaanxi province, according to ChinaAid.
More than 60 million Christians live in China, at least half of whom worship in unregistered churches.