Authorities in Wenzhou have removed all religious statues and images from a hilltop Catholic site, in another instance of what appears to be a widening crackdown against Christianity in this southeastern Chinese port city. More than 50 workers sealed off roads around Longgang Hill and removed the Way of the Cross and holy statues on Saturday, two days before bulldozers were ordered to begin the forced demolition of the sanctuary at the US$4.8 million Sanjiang Church, also in Wenzhou. Authorities have accused both sites of illegal construction, a charge many in Wenzhou's church community of about 150,000 people say is a pretext for cracking down on a vibrant Christian movement. “Even if the authorities determined that erecting religious articles on the site is against the law, they should allow us to appeal through legal means,” said Joseph, a Wenzhou Catholic who declined to give his full name due to security concerns. “This could help build the rule of law in society and stop corruption.” There was no confrontation on Saturday as authorities kept a promise not to damage holy statues of the Pavilions for the Blessed Mother, Jesus Christ and Saint Joseph. State workers bricked around the statues as they were too heavy to remove – some five tonnes – to hide them from public view at the 1.3-hectare park. Other holy statues and tablets of the Way of the Cross were lifted away with cranes and taken to be stored at a church property in Hengdaiqiao, a Wenzhou suburb, according to Catholic sources. All other religious decoration at Longgang Hill was demolished, said witnesses. “About 100 Catholics who came to watch the removals were blocked at the entrance. Some who managed to sneak in sang hymns and prayed while watching. Some could not hold back their tears,” said another Catholic observer, speaking on condition of anonymity. The motive for the recent government crackdown on Christianity in this city of more than three million people remains unknown in what has become an increasingly violent standoff between authorities and the church. On Thursday last week, state officials beat and injured four Catholics as an argument broke out during the forced demolition of a four-storey building owned by a lay Catholic in Wenzhou, a site authorities claimed was an underground religious meeting point. The top two stories were illegal, according to city regulations. Catholics familiar with the case complained that authorities had no legal right to demolish the entire structure in response. Similarly, authorities ordered the destruction of the Protestant Sanjiang Church sanctuary on Monday after it was deemed to have been built illegally on farmland the church does not own. Authorities and church leaders had been involved in a six-week standoff as members of the congregation occupied the site to try to fend off bulldozers. Some churchgoers have been detained, and local benefactors warned to cease financial support of the church.
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Reports of ambulances and that people have been injured or may even have died during the demolition at Sanjiang Church could not be confirmed as authorities continue to threaten Protestants in Wenzhou to remain silent on the widening crackdown, which has also included the removal of 14 crosses at other Protestant churches in the area. A copy of an official document obtained by ucanews.com, which could not be independently verified, stated that Wenzhou authorities decided in early January to begin shortlisting illegal worship sites in the city for demolition.