Authorities in northern China have demolished a Christian 50,000 strong evangelical megachurch in a move denounced by a religious rights group as “Taliban-style persecution”.
China’s officially atheist Communist authorities are wary of any organised movements outside their control, including religious ones.
The huge evangelical Jindengtai (“Golden Lampstand”) Church, painted grey and surmounted by turrets and a large red cross, was located in Linfen, Shanxi province.
Its demolition began on Tuesday under “a city-wide campaign to remove illegal buildings”, the Global Times newspaper reported, quoting a local government official who wished to remain anonymous.
“A Christian offered his farmland to a local Christian association and they secretly built a church using the cover of building a warehouse,” the official said.
The local housing department had stopped construction of the church in 2009 when it was almost complete, he added.
Several members of the Christian group were then jailed, according to the official.
A “multitude of military police were mobilised and engaged (in) the destruction by burying a large amount of explosives under the church,” Bob Fu, president of the US-based religious rights group ChinaAid Association, told AFP Saturday.
“It is like Taliban/ISIS style of persecution against a peaceful church,” he said, adding that it had around 50,000 members.
The house of worship was “primarily destroyed because it refused to register” with the Communist authorities, Fu said.
Linfen police and city officials did not answer telephone calls by AFP.
Demolition of the church comes as authorities prepare to implement new, stricter regulations on religion which come into force on February 1 as part of a broader effort to put religious practice under the direct supervision of the state.
Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and jailing hundreds of activists and lawyers.
Chinese citizens officially have freedom of belief under the constitution but the authorities tightly control religious groups and churches, which have to swear allegiance to state-controlled “patriotic” associations to avoid any foreign influence through religion.
In an annual report last year, the US State Department said that in 2016, China “physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups”.
China has 5.7 million Catholics and 23 million Protestants, according to official statistics from 2014.
But the figures exclude a similar number of Catholics who adhere to the unofficial “underground” church loyal to the Vatican and tens of millions of members of unrecognised churches, mainly Protestant.
Unofficial Christian organisations are generally tolerated if their members remain discreet.
Authorities however routinely crack down on construction of unauthorised places of worship and dozens of churches have been demolished in recent years.