Church activists and at least one Chinese Christian lawyer were arrested Tuesday by Chinese authorities for their opposition to the government’s removal of crosses from churches, the Guardian reported. Differing reports say that police arrested between nine and 11 people in the Chinese province of Zhejiang.
One of those arrested was believed to be Zhang Kai, a Chinese human rights attorney who had been offering legal help to some churches. Police contacted by phone hung up when the attorney's name was mentioned, the Associated Press reported.
“We think it is a campaign targeting church leaders across the province,” one unidentified church leader told the Guardian. “It can only be a coordinated action initiated by the provincial government.”
Since 2013, more than 1,200 crosses have been removed from churches, causing friction between China’s Communist Party and the church. China said in 2013, when it started removing the crosses, that it was targeting illegal buildings. Zhejiang province has been heavily targeted in the removal campaign. About 300,000 Catholics and 1 million Protestants live in Zhejiang, making it one of the most heavily Christian-populated areas in China.
Activists have denounced the removal of crosses, angering Chinese authorities, who ordered plainclothes police to go to homes of the activists they intended to arrest. Police did not inform the activists why they were being taken into custody. Neither Zhang’s family nor his law firm had heard from him since he was detained Tuesday.
“They did it on the quiet, in the middle of the night,” a church member told the Guardian. “They didn’t tell anybody in our church that this would happen.”
— Legatum Institute (@LegatumInst) August 20, 2015
Even before 2013, however, the Chinese government had shown hostility toward Christians in the country. The government arrested 20 Christians in Beijing in 2001 as they were preparing for an Easter service, citing possible dissent as a reason. This incident, as well as Tuesday’s crackdown, has caused some critics to say the government is trying to limit Christianity and its visibility in the country.