Chinese authorities began demolishing a Christian church Monday, according to Internet postings, after a weeks-long stand-off between worshipers and the local government which claims it is an illegal structure.
China's Communist Party keeps a tight grip on religion, fearing challenges to its authority, but allows worship at state-controlled churches.
Authorities had approved the construction of the Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou city with an area of 1,881 square metres (20,240 square feet) but the finished building was roughly four times that size, state media have reported.
Images posted online showed the church surrounded by several bright yellow excavators, some gouging holes in the side of the towering structure.
"Today the Wenzhou Sanjiang church is being demolished, where will our more than 1,000 believers gather after this? Why tear down our church?" Caoyuan Zhibing said in a microblog posting which included a photo said to be from the scene, in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Thousands of worshipers have previously flocked to the church to protect it, but online postings said police locked down the area on Monday, blocking traffic.
"The church of God is being demolished, how do you feel? So sad," said another poster using the name Joyful Hope.
The government of Yongjia county, which administers the area, declined to comment. "We are unclear about these issues," said an official at the county's main office.
A US-based religious rights group, the China Aid Association (CAA), said last week that the local government had reneged on a deal under which the church would demolish just two stories of an accessory building, not the main structure itself.
CAA said several churches in Wenzhou, a center for private enterprise that is also home to a thriving Christian community, have been forced to remove prominent crosses from their rooftops and threatened with partial or total demolition.
The state-linked China Christian Council estimates the country has around 20 million Christians -- not including Catholics -- 70 percent of them living in rural areas.
But the true number of worshipers could be higher, as so-called underground or house churches have also sprung up among Christian followers seeking to practice their faith outside government control.
© AFP 2014