BEIJING (AP) — A leading pastor in an eastern Chinese province where authorities have been cracking down on churches has been barred from the pulpit and removed as head of the provincial state-sanctioned Protestant church association.
Monday's action in Zhejiang province against Joseph Gu Yuese followed his arrest last month on charges of embezzlement and other economic crimes.
Supporters say the case against Gu was drummed up in retribution for his public opposition to a campaign by Zhejiang officials to forcibly remove hundreds of rooftop crosses from churches.
Notices posted Tuesday on the websites of the official provincial Christian Association and Three-Self Patriotic Movement said the charges against Gu required his removal, despite his case not having gone to trial.
Gu, who was taken into custody on Jan. 28 in Zhejiang's capital of Hangzhou, had been senior pastor at Chongyi Christian Church, one of China's largest.
Over the past two years, Zhejiang has led the charge in tearing down church crosses and other outward symbols of the Christian faith, saying they violated building codes.
Critics say the rapid growth of Christian groups has made the ruling Communist Party nervous. The dispute has been complicated by the fact that they have received help from overseas supporters at a time when the Chinese government is particularly sensitive to what it considers foreign meddling in domestic issues.
While authorities have long targeted unsanctioned "house churches," the current crackdown is remarkable because it involves members of the usually compliant official religious bodies.
In a related case, a husband and wife who led their congregation in opposing the cross removals were sentenced recently to 14 and 12 years in prison on charges of disturbing social order, illegally organizing people to petition the government and "tricking" congregants into donating money used toward personal expenses.