Beijing - A huge church purportedly built with almost £2 million raised from local worshippers in one of China’s poorest regions has been demolished by authorities, the latest flashpoint between religious groups and the officially atheist Communist Party.
The Golden Lampstand Church in the city of Linfen in the northern Shanxi province was destroyed with dynamite and heavy machinery, witnesses and overseas campaign groups said.
Chinese state media dismissed the demolition as part of routine removal of illegal buildings, but critics fear a more political motivation.
While freedom of religion is supposedly guaranteed in China, Beijing’s stability-obsessed leaders are deeply suspicious of any organisation which does not come under its rigid controls.
Pictures released by the US-based religious campaign group ChinaAid showed the church’s steeple and cross toppled on the floor around a pile of rubble.
The church has been embroiled in a long-running battle with the local government and several of its leaders where imprisoned in 2009 during a previous crackdown.
Bob Fu, founder and director of ChinaAid, said. “The repeated persecution of Golden Lampstand Church demonstrates that the Chinese government has no respect for religious freedom or human rights.”
The church, which has a congregation of about 50,000, is one of a growing number of independent churches in China.
Many of China’s 60 million Christians refuse to join churches sanctioned by the Communist Party and instead choose to worship at independent churches, or what are sometimes known as house churches.
Officials have removed crosses from more than 1,200 churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang since early 2014. Many other churches have been demolished in the province.
The demolition of the Golden Lampstand Church started on Tuesday and continued on Wednesday, said the state run Global Times newspaper.
It was being demolished as part of a “city-wide campaign to remove illegal buildings”, it said, citing local authorities.
A local pastor at a nearby church said that he saw a large number of paramilitary police on Tuesday descending on the area around the building, which was being taken apart by heavy machinery.
He later heard, but did not witness, a loud explosion, added the pastor, who asked to remain anonymous.