A City known as China's Jerusalem has had its holy statues depicting biblical scenes destroyed, removed or "hidden" by authorities, adding to fears of a renewed offensive against Christianity and drawing comparisons with the Cultural Revolution.
About 50 government workers sealed off Wenzhou's Longgang Hill, a site of Roman Catholic pilgrimage, and used bricks to "hide" statues portraying moments from the Passion of Christ, including the Crucifixion.
Statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, each weighing up to five tons, were "bricked around to hide them from public view" while cranes were used to remove other holy statues and tablets from the park.
"All other religious decoration was demolished," reported UCA news, a news agency covering Catholic issues in Asia.
"About 100 Catholics who came to watch the removals were blocked at the entrance,"said one witness, who asked not to be named because of "security concerns".
"Some who managed to sneak in sang hymns and prayed while watching. Some could not hold back their tears.
"The authorities' behaviour is reminiscent of the smashing of church property during the Cultural Revolution," another member of the city's Catholic community told UCA News's Chinese-language service.
The removals, news of which emerged yesterday, took place on Saturday, 48 hours, before government demolition teams razed a Protestant church in the same city.
Wenzhou's Sanjiang church became a symbol of resistance to the Communist Party's draconian religious policies in early April.
Thousands of Christians formed a human shield around the place of worship after plans to demolish it were announced, but the building was eventually levelled on Monday evening.
Christians accuse Communist Party leaders in Zhejiang province of attempting to slow their faith's rapid growth by destroying churches deemed too "conspicuous".
The Sanjiang church in the town of Oubei was demolished after a weeks-long stand-off between worshippers and the local government. Photo / AFP
They believe the "anti-church" campaign reflects Beijing's extreme discomfort with the rapid spread of Christianity in China, which one leading academic recently predicted could have the largest Christian congregation in the world by 2030.
A list compiled by Christian activists and shown to The Daily Telegraph this week names more than 20 churches that are facing or have already suffered some form of demolition work.
Officials deny the demolitions are an attack on Christianity, claiming their campaign is aimed at illegal constructions "including factories and Buddhist temples".
However, in an internal address to party officials earlier this year, a senior Communist official in Zhejiang complained that Christianity's growth had been "too excessive and too haphazard".
A document purportedly issued last December by Communist Party officials in Taizhou, another city in Zhejiang province, also appeared to suggest that Christian churches were being singled out.
Local communist leaders should take "rapid actions" against illegal buildings, "especially the Christian sites privately established without proper paperwork or approval," said the directive, which was obtained by China Aid, a US-based Christian rights group. The demolition of "Christian gathering sites" and nunneries are listed as key priorities.
Authorities this week indicated that the campaign was likely to continue, promising to "aggressively push on with the demolition of illegal buildings," the state-controlled Zhejiang Daily reported.
The motive for what appeared to be a "widening crackdown" was unknown but "an increasingly violent stand-off between authorities and the Church" was taking place, UCA News reported.
Four Catholics were beaten and injured by government officials in Wenzhou last week when an argument broke out during the forced demolition of a church, the news agency claimed.