Chinese authorities have demolished a well-known Christian megachurch, inflaming long-standing tensions between religious groups and the Communist Party. Witnesses and overseas activists said the paramilitary People's Armed Police used dynamite and excavators to destroy the Golden Lampstand Church, which has a congregation of more than 50,000, in the city of Linfen in Shaanxi province.
ChinaAid, a US-based Christian advocacy group, said local authorities planted explosives in an underground worship hall to demolish the building following, constructed with nearly $2.6m (£1.9m) in contributions from local worshippers in one of China's poorest regions.
The church had faced "repeated persecution" by the Chinese government, said ChinaAid. Hundreds of police and hired thugs smashed the building and seized Bibles in an earlier crackdown in 2009 that ended with the arrest of church leaders. Those church leaders were given prison sentences of up to seven years for charges of illegally occupying farmland and disturbing traffic order, according to state media.
There are an estimated 60 million Christians in China, many of whom worship in independent congregations like the Golden Lampstand. Millions of Christians, Buddhists and Muslims also worship in state-sanctioned assemblies.
But the surging popularity of non-state-approved churches has raised the ire of authorities, wary of any threats to the officially atheist Communist Party's rigid political and social control.
The Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, Shaanxi province, pictured in 2009 (AP) Freedom of religion is guaranteed under China's constitution, so local authorities are often seen as using technicalities to attack unregistered churches. Charges of land or building violations and disturbing the peace are among the most common.
Global Times newspaper reported the official reason for the demolition was the building did not hold the necessary permits.
"A Christian offered his farmland to a local Christian association and they secretly built a church using the cover of building a warehouse," a government department official was quoted as saying. Source