A cross caught fire while Chinese officials were attempting to remove it from the top of a church in Henan province earlier this month.
The authorities in Tang He county were using a crane to demolish the cross on the top of the Holy Grace Protestant Church on Sept. 20 when it was purportedly ignited by sparks during the removal.
Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told UCA News that to his knowledge, this was the first case of cross removal in the province, but it is unclear whether the order came from the central government.
A church official from Henan's Luoyang Diocese had noted that the authorities also ordered the removal of a cross on an old town church that belongs to the underground Catholic community more than a month ago.
The authorities reportedly warned that if the church would not comply with the request within a week, the cross would be taken down anyway. However, the Luoyang Diocese official noted that the authorities had still not carried out the threat even though the deadline has already passed.
The church official believes that the main goal was to force the underground church to register as a venue for religious activities.
A Protestant leader in Wenzhou prefecture told UCA News that the authorities are becoming more cunning and secretive when it comes to the removal of church crosses. Some officials are reportedly saying that workers had accidentally destroyed crosses.
In Zhejiang province, about 1,500 to 2,000 church crosses were forcibly removed by the authorities between 2013 and 2016. The Protestant leader said that the figures on the number of crosses removed this year had been concealed.
Ying said that time would tell if the cross demolition campaign will also be carried out in other provinces. So far, no cross removals have taken place in Jiangsu and Fujian, two major provinces with sizable Christian populations.
The Chinese Communist Party had been stepping up its crackdown on both registered and unregistered churches, and the government is expected to implement a new set of revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs in February.
Earlier this month, the Association of Christian Students, an organization with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, issued a report detailing plans to launch a specialized management program targeting private churches, "illegal" religious organizations, and preachers who have not been ordained by the state.
The program is reportedly aimed at forcing churches to register with the state-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and forcibly combine smaller house churches with registered churches.
In July, authorities in Henan province released a document announcing that religious organizations would no longer be allowed to run Sunday schools or summer camps.
There are indications that Henan has second largest Christian population in China, next to Zhejiang. It has been estimated that there were 2.4 million Christians, including 300,000 Catholics, in Henan in 2009.