SHANGHAI – Chinese authorities have arrested the pastor of the biggest Protestant church in the eastern city of Hangzhou for embezzlement, a state-backed newspaper said Tuesday, after he opposed the forced removal of crosses.
Zhejiang province, which has Hangzhou as its capital, has launched a widespread campaign to remove crosses it deems to violate building rules from churches, but activists describe the moves as a crackdown on religion by the Communist state.
Hangzhou police formally arrested the head of the Chongyi Church, Gu Yuese, on suspicion of misappropriating large amounts of funds and other “economic crimes,” according to the Zhejiang Daily newspaper.
The Chongyi Church, which is state-approved, in May last year issued a rare public criticism of the local government regulations on religious buildings.
Zhejiang has announced rules requiring crosses for Catholic and Protestant churches to be attached to the front of the building, rather than on the roof, and be no more than a tenth of the building’s height.
“The rules make many unreasonable requests for Catholic and Protestant buildings,” the church letter said.
“They also excessively interfere in freedom for reasonable use of building interiors, violating the basic spirit of the state’s religious management,” said the statement to Zhejiang authorities.
The state-linked Zhejiang Christian Council and Zhejiang Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches said Gu had also been removed as pastor of the church and stripped of his positions in the two bodies, according to statements released Monday.
The news comes days after a Zhejiang court sentenced another Christian pastor Bao Guohua to 14 years in jail for embezzlement and other charges, after he also opposed the forced removal of crosses.
His wife Xing Wenxiang was jailed for 12 years in a sentence handed down last week, reports said.
China’s officially atheist Communist authorities are wary of any organized movements outside their control, including religious ones, and analysts say controls over such groups have tightened under President Xi Jinping.
In 2014, Wenzhou city in Zhejiang demolished the large Sanjiang Church, following government declarations it was an illegal structure.