WUXI VILLAGE, China — The battle started when a government-hired crew tore down the metal cross atop the one-room church in this village surrounded by rice paddies last month.
The next day, a church member used his own welding torch to put it back. He was promptly detained and questioned for 10 hours on the charge of operating a welding business without a license.
A week later, the crew came back to remove the cross. Once again, church members put it back up, now tattered and a little shorter.
The church in the eastern village of Wuxi, about 300 miles south of Shanghai, has had its water and electricity cut off. Officials have attempted to install surveillance cameras and inquired about several church members’ work and their children’s schooling – a veiled threat that jobs and education might be at risk. But the congregation is not giving up.
“I won’t let them take down the cross even if it means they would shoot me dead,” said Fan Liang’an, 73, whose grandfather helped build the church in 1924.
Across Zhejiang province, which hugs China’s rocky southeastern coast, authorities have toppled – or threatened to topple – crosses at more than 130 churches. In a few cases, the government has even razed sanctuaries.
Authorities say the churches in question had violated building codes, even though they generally won’t specify which ones. They also deny that they are specifically targeting churches, and point to the demolition of tens of thousands of other buildings, religious and nonreligious, that have apparently broken regulations.
But experts and church leaders in Zhejiang, the only province where the incidents are happening, believe there is a campaign to repress Christianity, which has grown so rapidly as to alarm the atheist Communist government.
It comes at a time when Beijing has been tightening ideological controls, placing more restrictions on journalists, rights lawyers – many of whom are Christians – and political activists since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013.
The incidents speak to the power of symbols, and the emotions they evoke.
“The cross is the glory of us Christians,” said Cai Tingxu, who left his cosmetics shop in Shanghai to protect his hometown church in rural Zhejiang after hearing authorities warned they would tear down the cross. “Jesus was nailed to the cross for us. My heart ached to learn that the government wants to remove the cross.”
Estimates on the numbers of Christians in China vary widely because the government does not count religious affiliation. Official 2010 figures put them at 23 million. These are registered members of the state-sanctioned churches, which are closely monitored by the government.
But China also has vast numbers of underground believers who meet in secret. The Pew Research Center estimated there were 58 million Protestants in China in 2011, along with 9 million Catholics in the year before. Other experts say there could be more than 100 million.
These estimates are up from the widely accepted figure of 1 million Christians in 1950, and may even rival the size of the 85 million-member Communist Party.
The church’s dramatic growth – and Christians’ loyalty to God above all else – has alarmed authorities, said Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University sociologist and leading expert on religious matters in China.
Although Chinese Christians are generally apolitical, their weekly gatherings and mutual support could prove dangerous if the movement adopts political objectives, he said. The church is “resilient in resisting government pressures and persecutions.”
A possible reason Zhejiang province has come under scrutiny is that it is home to Wenzhou, a city of 8 million that has so many churches that it is called “China’s Jerusalem.”
“This is clearly discrimination against our religion and to crack down on our belief,” said Wang Yunxian, a church elder.