Demolition of church in China sparks fears of wider crackdown against Christians

(Reuters/Lang Lang/Files)A local resident rides a bicycle past a church in Xiaoshan, a commercial suburb of Hangzhou, the capital of China's east Zhejiang province December 21, 2006.

Chinese officials in Shanxi province have demolished a large church, sparking fears of a wider crackdown on Christians as the government prepares to implement new regulations on religion.

On Sunday, police cordoned off the area around the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, before detonating the explosives that were placed inside. After the initial explosion, the remaining pieces of the church were broken apart with diggers and jackhammers.

A pastor of a nearby church said that there were "more police than I could count" preventing worshippers from approaching the site.

"My heart was sad to see this demolition and now I worry about more churches being demolished, even my own. This church was built in 2008, there's no reason for them to destroy it now," he said.

A church member who spoke on condition of anonymity told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the demolition was conducted by "anti-riot team, quite large."

When asked if the congregants were beaten by the police, the church member said they had not. But before hanging up, the church member quickly told RFA, "I'm under house arrest now."

Head pastor Yang Rongli said that Golden Lampstand was built at the cost of 17 million yuan (US$2.6 million).

China Aid, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization, reported that the church has been facing government pressure since it was built 2009.

"China repeatedly cracks down on house churches, which are churches that refuse to register, often to opt out of government monitoring. Officials often prosecute such choices, however, and some of Golden Lampstand Church's leaders have been imprisoned for one to seven years, simply for serving at their church," the organization said in a statement on Tuesday.

Yang was previously jailed for seven years on charges of "assembling a crowd to disturb traffic order" and has been put under police surveillance since she was released in October 2016.

As the church was being built in September 2009, around 400 officials reportedly came to the construction site and beat the church members who were sleeping there.

After learning of the beatings, Yang "Esther" Xue, the daughter of two of the church's pastors, tried to contact her parents at their home, but no one answered.

She later found out that both of her parents had been arrested on Oct. 11, 2009 for leading the house church. Her father, Yang Xuan had been imprisoned for three-and-a-half years, while her mother, Yang Caizhen, was sentenced to two years in a re-education labor camp, where she has reportedly suffered beatings.

The Golden Lampstand was the second church to be demolished in China in less than a month. In late December, local officials tore down a Catholic church that was built in 1999 in a small village in Shaanxi without giving a reason for the demolition.

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