BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have torn down “two or three” crosses adorning Christian churches in one county because they were “illegally built”, state media quoted an official as saying on Tuesday.
The officially atheist ruling Communist Party has tightened restrictions and oversight of religious practice in China under President Xi Jinping, carrying out a controversial cross demolition campaign in east China’s Zhejiang province.
The central government had also approved “two or three” crosses of churches in Yichuan county, in central Henan province, to be torn down, a religious affairs official surnamed Zhang said, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
“The parishes were illegally built without permission from the government, so we demolished their crosses,” the paper reported Zhang as saying. “Activities in the illegally built parishes will be prohibited.”
Zhang denied the removals targeted Christianity, and the report did not specify the denominations of churches that were impacted.
The crackdown comes amid expectations of a landmark deal between Beijing and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops that could eventually open the way for a resumption of diplomatic relations nearly 70 years after they were cut during the Communist takeover of China.
China says that it guarantees the freedom of religious practice as long as it does not challenge the leadership of the party, cause social instability or threaten national security.
A new push by the Chinese authorities to bring the huge number of unregistered churches under government control has raised concerns of greater restrictions among some religious communities.
Chinese Catholics are split between those who attend officially sanctioned churches run by government-approved bishops and technically illegal “underground” churches, the vast majority of which are loyal to the Vatican. Protestant churches are also growing fast.
The Global Times also verified as genuine circulating images of a notice from a community in Henan’s Anyang city that asked all religious believers to register with the authorities, citing an unnamed neighborhood committee employee.
“The higher religious department met with communities and asked us to make the census,” the employee told the paper.
Legislation on religious affairs that came into effect in February has raised official oversight of religious education and practice, and introduced harsher punishments for practices not sanctioned by the authorities.
Direct party control of religion is also being strengthened in a sweeping government reshuffle announced last month that brought religious affairs under the direct control of the United Front Work Department, in charge of co-opting non-party groups to support its interests.
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Nick Macfie