By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have dismantled a cross in a Christian nursing home a week before Christmas, an employee said on Tuesday, the latest example of a growing crackdown on Christianity.
Men dressed in plainclothes removed the cross that was on top of the nursing home in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Dec. 19, said Gao Huifang, a worker at the home.
Activists say the incident is part of a campaign targeting churches throughout Zhejiang province, which is known for its growing Christian population. Hangzhou is the provincial capital.
The dismantling of the cross had stunned residents, and three elderly people fainted on the spot, Gao said.
"Although everyone has recovered, the wound to our hearts will never heal," Gao told Reuters by telephone.
The men did not give a reason for tearing the cross down except to say the "orders came from high up", she said.
An official from a district ethnic and religious affairs bureau which supervises the nursing home said the cross was "not removed, but rectified" to create a "scenic spot".
"According to standards, this Christian nursing home is not a place for religious activities," said the official, who declined to give his name.
As of Dec. 12, at least 426 churches had received orders for demolition or removal of crosses in Zhejiang, which has launched a campaign "to target all illegal structures", according to ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group.
"The true intention behind demolishing church buildings and rectifying crosses is to curb the development of Christianity," the group said in a statement on its website this month.
Gao said the nursing home was registered with the Hangzhou civil affairs bureau but operated independently.
China says it guarantees freedoms of religion, as long as people worship in institutions that are registered with the ruling Communist Party's religious affairs authorities. Protestant churches have to be registered with the official Three Self-Patriotic Movement Committee.
Experts say there are up to 60 million Protestants in China, divided between the official and unregistered churches.
The pressures that Christian churches in Zhejiang face are part of a broader crackdown on dissent and religion.
The official Xinjiang Daily said on Tuesday the regional government would implement new rules from Jan. 1 aimed at combating extremism in the western region, where ethnic Uighur Muslims live.
"People will be banned from 'exaggerating religious fervor using their appearance, clothing or logos'," the newspaper said.
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)