Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, the largest government-sanctioned church in China, is urging Christians worldwide to pray for the Rev. Gu Yuese as he faces prison time following his voiced opposition to a campaign to remove crosses from atop churches.
According to a statement by Christian NGO China Aid, Gu Yuese, also known as Joseph Gu, was placed under "residential surveillance in a designated location" - commonly known as 'black jails' - last Thursday.
The report notes that the arrest happened 10 days after authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang forcefully removed the pastor from his position, supposedly for speaking out against the government's ongoing crackdown against Christians in the country since early 2014.
Over the weekend, China Christian Daily released a press release from Chonyi Church, which "asks its congregation particularly to pray for pastor Gu Yuese: beg the Lord to help Rev. Gu keeping his faith in adversity, standing firmly in the trials of the cross."
Over the past two years, authorities in Zhejiang have sought to dismantle crosses and religious structures on top of churches, angering the local religious population. Over a thousand crosses have been removed from churches in the area, and a number of church buildings entirely demolished.
While authorities in the region claim the crosses are being removed because they violate regulations against illegal structures, rights groups argue that destroying crosses restricts Christianity and religious freedoms.
According to the New York Times, the targeting of believers in Zhejiang, one of China's wealthiest provinces, 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.
ABC News notes that Gu's arrest is ironic, as he was "elevated as almost a poster boy in the government-established system for showcasing religious freedom in China," frequently meeting with foreign guests and appearing at government-organized ceremonies.
"His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses," ChinaAid director Bob Fu told the news outlet. "He will be the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution."
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.
Last 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.