In the face of an official campaign to curb the rapid spread of Christianity, thousands of Chinese Christians have camped in and around a church in the eastern part of the country in order to prevent its demolition, the Washington Post reported.

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Sanjiang Church (Image source: Pray for China CCL/Facebook)

Local officials in the province of Zhejiang embarked on a campaign in February to demolish any church buildings that violated local regulations, according to a government Web site, given their concern that Christianity was growing too fast and in an “unsustainable” manner.

When leaders of Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou refused to remove small spires on the rooftop, officials threatened to tear down the entire building, according to Zheng Leguo, an evangelical church leader from Wenzhou.

A local Christian leader who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation told the Post he’s been staying in the church since Thursday with about 3,000 other Christians — some of whom are from neighboring churches and are helping to guard the building.

“From what they discussed during negotiations, the point isn’t about the illegal construction, but about the cross,” the leader told the Post. “Some top officials believe that there are too many crosses, too many churches, and in every county, they asked for a few crosses to be destroyed, not all of them.”

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Sanjiang Church (Image source: Pray for China CCL/Facebook)

Apparently crosses that can be seen in public are a big problem; the provincial Communist Party secretary reportedly bristled at being able to view many large, bright crosses during a recent trip along a major highway and ordered the removal of some of them. Churches have been told that they can instead hang smaller crosses inside.

According to ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian group, at least six crosses have been taken down so far.

A local government official not authorized to speak by name to the media said authorities were trying to resolve the matter peacefully and had never threatened to demolish the structures by force. “We’ve asked them to leave out of concern for their own safety, but some local followers still slept inside the building,” he told the Post. “The government is still negotiating with the people to figure out how to handle this smoothly.”

China’s constitution recognizes freedom of religion but the government limits religious practice to officially-approved places of worship.

More than 23 million Christians are in China, according to a 2010 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences — but scholars believe the actual number is much higher, given that many belong to house churches, which the government views as illegal and often harasses and arrests.

Although Sanjiang Church church is registered with the authorities, it’s not affiliated with the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” of Protestant churches which critics contend is closely controlled by the Communist Party.

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