The influential pastor of China's largest church has been removed from his position in what is thought to be retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the country's crackdown on Christianity.
Gu Yuese served as pastor of Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, which attracts around 10,000 people every Sunday to multiple services. He has publicly opposed the government campaign to tear down the crosses that identify church buildings. The advocacy group China Aid says his removal may be connected to this and described his dismissal as an abuse of religious freedom.
According to the local Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council the aim of the dismissal was to "move one step closer towards the proper self-establishment and management of church locations by the two Christian organisations in Hangzhou, promote the normal rotation of the principal Christians in charge of churches and sort out the interpersonal relationship between the province and the two municipal [Christian] organisations".
Gu will be replaced by Pastor Zhang Zhongcheng, vice-chairman of the Hangzhou Chinese Christian TSPM Committee.
Reacting to the announcement, Gu Yuese and and his wife Zhou Lian Mei, who teaches Bible classes at the church, issued a statement thanking the congregation for its support and affirming their commitment to the church.
They say: "Regardless of how the situation will be after this, we will inevitably continue serving at Chongyi Church if there is no other guidance from the Lord himself! Of course, the manner [of service] may change, but our love of the Lord and his flock will never change, because we are the Lord's servants! Thank God!" The statement continues: "Increasingly, we feel God's good intentions in this storm. It will refine every impurity in our ministry team to the greatest extent and compel us to love the Lord and people more purely."
The demolition campaign against crosses on churches in Zhejiang province has seen hundreds removed or damaged. Journalists covering the story have been intimidated and arrested and at least 20 Christians, including pastors and deacons, are being held in prison.
Also held is human human rights lawyer Zhang Kai, who provided legal advice for churches in their resistance to the campaign. He had represented more than 100 churches fighting orders to remove their crosses. Zhang wrote and distributed a 'Cross Activists Handbook', advising church leaders on how they can use China's own constitution – which guarantees religious freedom – to defend their rights.