Christian leaders in China are protesting a Communist party campaign to remove crosses from churches across the Zhejiang province, vowing to make the religious symbol "flourish" throughout the country in response to governmental pushback.
Last week, 20 Catholic clergy staged a public demonstration in Wenzhou, a coastal city known as the "Jerusalem of the East" due to its large Christian population. In the past two years, over 1,200 crosses have been forcibly removed from church buildings and other structures within the city.
According to The Guardian, the group, which was monitored by Chinese police, held a banner outside a government building in the city that read: "Maintaining religious dignity and opposing the forced removal of crosses".
"Each time they take a cross down, we will put more up," one church leader said. "We are even considering making flags and clothes with cross patterns. We will make the cross flourish throughout China."
The report notes that the Communist government initiative to remove all crosses, which began in 2013, is being referred to as an "evil act" that has "caused great resentment and anger among clergy and believers."
Chinese officials claim the campaign is an attempt to rid the region of "illegal structures" and has nothing to do with religion. "There is no such thing [as an anti-church campaign]," one official was quoted as saying by state media last year.
However, Christians believe the demolitions are sinister, deliberate attacks on their faith.
"The leaders think Christianity is a foreign religion and it is part of a foreign culture, which they define as 'Western' culture," church leader Chen Zhi'ain told CNN. "They see our growth as an invasion of Western culture into China."
An earlier report from the New York Times echoes such claims, asserting that the recent targeting of believers highlights the Chinese leadership's discomfort with the growing allure of Christianity, whose followers are said to rival in number the 86 million members of the Communist Party.
Another church leader who attended the protest told The Guardian that authorities were attempting to transform Christianity "into a tool that serves the party".
"What they are doing feels like something from the Cultural Revolution era," he said, referring to the period in the 1960s when churches and temples were destroyed by Chairman Mao's Red Guards.
Speaking to Christian Today last week, Bob Fu, president of Texas-based non-profit China Aid, said that while the Church has played a key role in creating stability within China, "it is the nature of the Communist Party that it will not tolerate competition for minds and hearts."
"Christianity has grown so fast that Christians outnumber Communist Party members," he said. "The whole purpose of this is to control the 'overheated' growth of Christianity. They are nervous not just about Christianity but of any organized civil group."
The ongoing cross demolitions have been condemned by the international community, with activists urging U.S. President Barack Obama to address the issue with president Xi Jinping, when he makes his first state visit to the United States in September.
"Without question, religious freedom is under assault in China," Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said following a congressional hearing last week.
However, he said that the campaign "arguably had the unintended consequence of infusing many of these religious adherents with greater vibrancy as evidenced most dramatically by the explosive growth of Christianity in China."