BEIJING (Reuters) - Police in eastern China clashed in the middle of the night with Christian protesters massed around their church on Monday, but failed to carry out a government order to remove a cross from the building, according to witnesses and online accounts.
Several people were injured in the two-hour melee.
Dozens of churches in the wealthy province of Zhejiang have received government notices in the past few weeks demanding the demolition of church buildings or removal of crosses in what the government says is a campaign aimed at illegal structures, the U.S.-based Christian group ChinaAid says.
Rights groups and Christians say it amounts to religious persecution, which ignores the protection of religious freedom in China's constitution.
In the latest move, police tried to remove a cross from a church in Pingyang county close to Wenzhou city. But the congregation surrounded the church and prevented police from getting close, two witnesses said.
"We did not want them to get close, so we joined up to stop them getting in, but they came at us and beat us," one of the protesters, who gave his family name as Zhang, told Reuters by telephone, putting the number of police at about 500.
Zhang said police had been unable to remove the cross, but had locked down the site.
Another witness, who asked not to be identified, said the clashes had started at 2 a.m. and went on for two hours. She knew of at least five people who needed hospital treatment.
"We are Christians and are not looking for trouble, and if the government comes to us with reasonable requests, we will not oppose it. But using force on us at 2 a.m. is unacceptable and we cannot understand why they are doing it," she added.
Pictures on the Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo and mobile messaging app WeChat showed protesters fighting with police. Several people had bloodied faces.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the veracity of the pictures and many were swiftly removed by government censors.
An official who answered the telephone at the Pingyang government said he did "not understand the situation" and declined further comment. Reuters was unable to reach Pingyang police.
Zhejiang sits on the coast to the south of Shanghai and has long been known as a hub of private enterprise.
China has about 65 million Christians, split between those who worship at state-sanctioned churches and those who belong to underground churches. Rights groups frequently accuse China of not respecting freedom of religion, charges Beijing denies.
About 90,000 "mass incidents" - a euphemism for protests - occur each year in China, triggered by corruption, pollution, illegal land grabs and other grievances.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski)