A pastor's wife who died after government workers buried her underground because she attempted to prevent the destruction of a local church demonstrates the Chinese government's desperation to stunt the growth of Christianity in the country, a persecution watchdog has said.
As earlier reported, last weekend, a government-backed company dispatched personnel to bulldoze Beitou Church in Zhumadian, Henan province, after a local developer wished to take control of the church's valuable property.
Church pastor Li Jiangong and his wife, Ding Cuimei, stepped in front of the machinery in an attempt to stop the demolition, according to the report from China Aid.
"Bury them alive for me," a member of the demolition team said. "I will be responsible for their lives."
The bulldozer shoved Li and Ding into a pit and covered their bodies with soil. While Li was able to dig his way free, his wife suffocated under the dirt and died before she could be rescued.
Speaking to Fox News, Bob Fu, president and founder of China Aid, said the horrific incident underscores the serious violations against religious freedom in China that have occurred since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013 and 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.
"He has taken a strong ideological turn to create a new cultural direction," Fu said. "He [Xi] has really turned against the independent churches and any independent social movements. The government wants to contain the growth of Christianity."
The pastor told the outlet that more than 2,000 churches in southern China, most of which had operated freely for decades, have been forced to remove crosses from their exteriors in the last year alone.
Fu also revealed that more than 500 activists and lawyers have been detained in the last year, with many still imprisoned.
"There is some resistance, but it is mostly passive," he said. "There is not much the people can do in terms of going against the government."
Meanwhile, police told China Aid that the two perpetrators from the demolition team are currently criminally detained while a criminal investigation team from the public security bureau reviews their case.
However, local believers revealed that the various government departments managing the area did not show up to oversee the demolition, and police took a suspiciously long time to arrive at the scene after a report of the murder was filed.
While the Chinese Communist Party claims to allows "freedom of religious belief, Open Doors USA has placed the country at 33rd on its World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution.
"The government's goal of maintaining power and social harmony includes the control of all religions, including the quickly growing Christian minority," reads the report.
Earlier this year, Rev. Gu Yuese, the former leader of Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, the largest government sanctioned church in the country, was arrested after speaking out against rooftop cross removals. While he was but formally held on embezzlement charges, Yuese was released earlier in April.
Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern said that while it is good news that the pastor was released, the move by the Communist Party was little more than "a precursor to the Chinese president's visit to the United States," referring to President Xi Jinping's meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"Pastor Yuese is not completely out of the woods because residential surveillance could likely be or become the notorious black jail. If he is placed under its restrictive rules, he will not be allowed to leave his home or speak with anyone," ICC said at the time.