Chinese security forces have arrested at least nine Christians who protested the Communist government's campaign to remove crosses from churches, including a well-known lawyer who has remained out of contact for almost two days.
The Globe and Mail reports that the Christians were detained by government workers on Thursday in Wenzhou, a city of 20 million people in eastern province of Zhejiang, where local authorities are under a deadline to remove crosses from church roofs. Over a thousand crosses have been removed from churches in the area.
"At least nine people I know have been taken away by the police and that figure is still rising," a church leader told the Guardian. "We think it is a campaign targeting church leaders across the province. It can only be a co-ordinated action initiated by the provincial government."
"They said people who were taken away would be put under residential surveillance," the pastor continued. "We are all very angry. They didn't inform people what charges they were being held on and they didn't produce any documents. There are people outside my house. I know if I go out they might arrest me too."
Among those detained is Zhang Kai, a prominent Beijing human rights lawyer who been providing legal counsel for over 100 churches in their resistance to the government order.
Kai was seized in the early hours of Tuesday while attending church, activists told RFA, and his family has not received word from him in two days.
"They did it on the quiet, in the middle of the night," a church member said. "They didn't tell anybody in our church that this would happen. By the time we got there, he had already been taken away."
Tension between the Communist government and the Christian community in Zhejiang has been mounting since 2013, when authorities first initiated a demolition campaign that they said targeted illegal buildings.
In theory, China officially guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has exhibited a growing discomfort with Christianity, whose followers are said to rival in number the 86 million members of the Communist Party.
"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 earlier this year. "They see our growth as an invasion of Western culture into China."
Thus far, more than 1,200 crosses have been removed and several churches have been completely demolished, including the Sanjiang mega-church in Wenzhou, a city commonly referred to as "China's Jerusalem" due to its large Christian population.
According to a report from UCA News, both Christian and Catholic groups have openly protested the government's cross-removal campaign, with one leader religious leader condemning the cross removals as an "evil act."
In response, China's government-controlled media warned Zhejiang's Christians not to resist the removals or to speak out to foreign journalists. Earlier in August, police detained seven members of a church on charges of embezzlement and other suspected crimes.
However, a lawyer representing one of the members claimed that they were clearly detained after resisting the government's campaign to take down their church's cross.
"Based on our current understanding of the situation, these charges are false," lawyer Chen Jiangang said at the time. "If they had actively cooperated with the demolition of the church's cross, there would not be any case today."
William Nee, Amnesty International's China researcher, said his group was monitoring the "very worrying" situation in Zhejiang.