Christians living in eastern China struggle to defend their faith as Communist Party authorities continue to forcibly remove crosses and demolish churches in what believers call the worst anti-Christian crackdown in decades.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric, they're like bandits and we are furious with them," says Chen Zhi'ai, a respected church leader in the Wenzhou, located in eastern China. "Today we've seen the fundamental symbol of our faith violated and it hurts us deep inside our hearts."
In Wenzhou, the "Jerusalem of China," a group of Christians stand watch by their church, protecting the cross that sits atop the building from local authorities, often singing hymns such as "The Cross Is My Glory" to encourage one another.
"If I have to, I am going to hold it in my arms and protect it," one elderly man told CNN. "They have no right to tear it down, that is why we have to defend our church."
Thus far, authorities have removed over 300 crosses and demolished innumerable Christian churches around the city, primarily targeting those which are state-sanctioned. Hundreds of Christians have been injured as congregations attempt to stop local police from destroying religious imagery and places of worship.
Currently, fourteen lawyers are attempting to sue authorities over the violent invasion of churches, demanding that those responsible for the "atrocity" be brought to justice.
The lawyers criticized "the wanton demolition of crosses and persecution of Christians" and warned that such actions would go down in history as a crime against China's Christian community.
However, the local government denies targeting Christians, saying the demolitions are simply part of an effort to target illegal structures, and insist the church demolitions are only a small part of this campaign.
"Only a tiny fraction of the total demolished areas were being used for religious purposes," one official told the state-run Global Times.
But church members and academics believe the ongoing anti-church campaign is a Beijing-backed attempt to slow the rapid growth of China's Christian community, which many believe could become the largest on earth within 15 years.
"Christianity has been growing very rapidly in China in the last several decades," says Fenggang Yang of Purdue University in Indiana. "There is very little sign that it is slowing down."
"It moved from a largely rural religion, came into the cities and became very popular with entrepreneurs. Many converts are now the youth."
Religious leaders in China warn the government against targeting Christians for political reasons as well, arguing that the religion has been a refuge for many Chinese and promoted social harmony.
"It has been proven that religious belief is important for the maintenance of social stability... while religious persecution is one source of social instability," Wang Hongjie, one of the lawyers who signed the petition, told the Telegraph.
"The church was not at all keen on politics but after this it may be that it starts playing an active role in political affairs," he concluded.