China's President Xi Jinping has warned that the Communist country must be on guard against foreign infiltration through religion and stop "extremists" from spreading their ideology.
"We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists," President Xi said at a Beijing conference on religions attended by top leaders, according to the South China Morning Post.
He added that all religious groups must submit to the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, and charged that the internet was a key propaganda front to promote the Party's stand on religion.
"In no way should religions interfere with government administration, judiciary and education," he said. "[Religious groups] should merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China's reform and opening-up drive and socialist modernization to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation," he added.
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 Pew Research Center puts the number of Christians in China at 67 million, 58 million of whom are Protestant and 9 million Catholic.
In Zhejiang province, local governments have removed more than 1,200 crosses from churches and other buildings since 2014, citing regulations on illegal structures. The move sparked protests in the city of Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem" due to its heavy Christian population.
"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."
Also, 500 activists and lawyers who opposed the cross demolition campaign have been detained in the last year, with many still imprisoned.
Zhang Kai, a Christian lawyer who defended the churches, was detained for seven months and imprisoned on charges of "endangering state security" and "assembling a crowd to disrupt social stability".
Zhang also "admitted" to collaborating with "foreign forces", but many international human rights watchdogs claimed it was a forced confession.
Last month, the wife of a pastor of a church in Zhumadian, Henan province suffocated to death after government workers buried her underground because she attempted to prevent the destruction of the building.
Speaking to Fox News, Bob Fu, president and founder of China Aid, said the incident underscores the serious violations against religious freedom in China that have occurred since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013.
"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."
SCMP notes that the government is also concerned about what it sees as the growing influence of Islamists in the Xinjiang region in the far west. Over the past several years, hundreds of people have been killed in violence between members of the Muslim Uighur community and majority Han Chinese.
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.