A U.S. religious rights group said that China's recent demolition of Sanjiang Christian Church in Zhejiang province is evidence that the government is trying to stop the rapid growth of Christianity in the world's most populous nation.
"I suspect it is a well-orchestrated campaign in order to contain the rapid growth of Christianity," said Bob Fu of the China Aid Association, according to AFP.
"The deliberate wounds will take years to heal and the remaining little trust between the Chinese government and Chinese religious communities is gone."
Thousands of Christians have tried to protect the church from government plans to demolish it, even forming a human wall outside the building earlier in April, but authorities destroyed the church earlier this week, claiming that it violated building codes and used illegal structures.
The Protestant church cost an estimated $4.6 million to build over a six-year period in the city of Wenzhou, and was largely funded by donations from the congregation.
"We are crying inside, there is nothing more to say," a middle-aged man who wasn't named said following the demolition.
"It's gone now," his wife added.
The Christian couple revealed that government "work teams" have been visiting believers in the area and criticizing them for their religious beliefs.
While the Chinese government officially guarantees freedom of religion, only certain religious groups receive approval, which forces many Christian churches to go underground or operate as house churches.
Sanjiang Christian Church was registered with the authorities, however, which initially gave the congregation hope that they will be able to worship there in peace.
Last week, a religion expert estimated that China's Protestant population is likely to swell to 160 million by 2025.
"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University.
"It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change," Yang added, who is the author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.
The sociology professor further estimated that China's total Christian population could hit 247 million people by 2030, which would be the largest Christian population in a single country.
"Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this. It's ironic – they didn't. They actually failed completely," he said, referring to Mao Zedong, the Communist leader and founder of the People's Republic of China.
China, which has no state religion, currently has a minority Christian population. According to the CIA World Factbook, 52.2 percent of the population is religiously unaffiliated, 18.2 percent is Buddhist, and only 5.1 percent are Christians.
The China Christian Council has said that around 70 percent of those Christians are living in rural areas.