BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)-- A tense calm has returned to China's southeastern Wenzhou after thousands of Christians formed a new blockade to prevent government officials from starting demolishing the $4.8 million Sanjiang Christian Church.
Rights investigators said a previous standoff ended when authorities signed an agreement with church leaders promising to leave the church untouched. In exchange, church leaders agreed to demolish several floors of a nearby building used by the church as a care facility for the elderly.
However last week, "The government decided to remove the cross on the roof and change the first floor of the church to be a public parking lot, the second floor a public library, only leaving the third floor for worship," said a Christian in remarks published by advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC).
Chinese security forces reportedly cordoned off the road to the church with fire engines and ambulances lining up along the street.
As thousands of Christians began to reassemble overnight in defense of the newly-constructed church, social media sites set up by area Christians were reportedly flooded with information and advice for participants in the new blockade.
Everything from tips on how to protect oneself from water cannons and pepper spray to recommendations on bringing extra food and water in case of a prolonged standoff were exchanged.
Christians said several of the churches leaders and their family members were threatened with the loss of employment by government officials since the confrontation over the church began. "Such threats are not uncommon in China when Christians and other religious minorities attempt to resist government pressure," commented ICC in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Since April 11, at least seven other churches in Zhejiang Province, where the Sanjiang Christian Church is located, have been facing "demolition or rectification orders," according to China Aid Association (CAA), which is in close contact with local believers.
In 2000, hundreds of churches were demolished across the province in a massive crackdown on religious minorities, Christian rights investigators said.
"It is critical that the international community not turn its attention away from the showdown taking place today in Wenzhou, China," added Ryan Morgan, ICC's regional manager for East Asia.
"Thousands of brave men and women are risking their lives and welfare to protect the symbol of their faith from a government that is all too willing to breach every rule of international conduct in its suppression of religious minorities," he said.
"If the international spotlight is taken away now, then these thousands of bold blockaders will be left alone in the dark as police and bulldozers attempt to turn their place of worship into a parking lot," he said.
Christians have complained of a crackdown by often atheist, Communist officials, on the spread of Christianity. Worship is allowed in state-backed churches, but many of the as many as 130 million Christians prefer to gather outside government control, rights activists say.