Thousands of Chinese Christians have flocked to a church in Wenzhou to protect it from being torn down by city officials.
A 24-hour human shield has been established at Sanjiang church following a demolition notice which states that it has been constructed illegally.
Although the right to freedom of religious belief is guaranteed under Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, that protection is limited to those who worship within state-sanctioned religious bodies. Those who choose to practise their faith outside of these, or whose beliefs are not officially recognised by the Government, are at constant risk of being accused of participating in illegal activities, which carries heavy punishments.
However, even those who worship within state-approved 'Three-Self' churches often face difficulties. Sanjiang church in Wenzhou has been sanctioned by the Government, and the decision to tear it down following a recent expansion has therefore been met with shock.
Wenzhou reportedly has the largest Christian community in China – a nation in which thousands are reported to be converting to Christianity daily. According to The Telegraph, there were just one million believers in China when the atheist Communist party came to power in 1949; now, there are thought to be around 100 million.
In Wenzhou, Christians have responded quickly to this latest attempt by the state to curtail their freedom and have blamed over-zealous provincial party leader Xia Baolong.
"There are bad people out there trying to damage our church so we must defend it," says Li Jingliu, a 56-year-old who has been sleeping in the church for the past week.
"His [Baolong's] behaviour is illegal. He has abused his power. The construction of the church is not against the law," adds 47-year-old Wang Jianfeng.
Those guarding the church have assured that they will stay as long as they need to, and have created a makeshift kitchen – proving that they are in it for the long haul.
Li Jingliu, a member of Sanjiang church for 34 years, declared: "I will guard the church until the very end, without fearing hardship or death."
Chinese authorities, however, contend that the church is structurally unsafe and does not comply with regulations.
A representative from the local authority in Sanjiang, Zhang Biyao, told The Telegraph that the "people's safety" is the government's primary concern, and bulldozing the church is not a matter of religious freedom.
"They can believe. This is free. We can't control them," she said.
Local Christians disagree that this is the officials' motivation, however. A priest from Wenzhou told the South China Morning Post that the Government has recently been targeting churches with renewed zeal, focusing particularly on those with prominent religious symbols.
"They said the holy cross was built too high and violated the building code, but why only target churches when many buildings violate height limits?" Timothy Liao asked.
"Clearly, this is a pretext to tear down churches."
International Christian Concern (ICC) has urged the Chinese Government to reconsider its planned demolition, and offer greater freedoms to its citizens.
"We call on the authorities in Zhejiang province to immediately rescind their orders for the demolition of Sanjiang Christian Church," says Ryan Moran, Regional Manager for East Asia.
"This church was legally constructed and has every right to exist in a nation which strongly claims, at least in the international community, to respect the religious freedoms of its citizens. No one of any faith should have to place their life between a bulldozer and their house of worship.
"ICC stands with the Christians of Zhejiang Province as they take this courageous stand to protect their rights," he concluded.
ICC works to protect the rights of persecuted Christians worldwide. For more details, visit www.persecution.org.