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 / Updated  / Source: Reuters

BEIJING -- Poice clashed with Christian protesters massed around their church early Monday, but failed to carry out a Chinese government order to remove a cross from the building, according to witnesses and online accounts. Several people were injured in the two-hour melee.

Dozens of churches in the wealthy province of Zhejiang have received government notices in recent weeks demanding the demolition of church buildings or removal of crosses in what the government says is a campaign aimed at illegal structures, the U.S.-based Christian group ChinaAid says. In the latest move, police tried to remove a cross from a church in Pingyang county close to Wenzhou city. "We did not want them to get close, so we joined up to stop them getting in, but they came at us and beat us," a protester who gave his family name as Zhang told Reuters by telephone. Zhang said police had been unable to remove the cross, but had locked down the site. China has about 65 million Christians, split between those who worship at state-sanctioned churches and those who belong to underground churches. Rights groups frequently accuse China of not respecting freedom of religion, charges Beijing denies.

Image: Graffiti denouncing the Chinese Communist Party on a wall near a church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, on April 28
Graffiti denouncing the Chinese Communist Party on a wall near a church in Wenzhou shows deep conflicts between local officials and Christians in China's Zhejiang province. Many churches have been ordered to remove their crosses for the alleged violation of building codes.Kyodo via AP, file
- Reuters