Pastor Gu "Joseph" Yuese of Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, the largest government-sanctioned church in China, has reportedly been sent to jail for protesting forced removal of church crosses.
China Aid reported on Thursday that Gu was taken into custody and placed under "residential surveillance in a designated location," while family members claim that the pastor's wife has also been taken into police custody.
The arrests happened 10 days after authorities in the Zhejiang province forcefully removed the pastor from his position, allegedly for his choice to speak out against the ongoing government crackdown against Christians in the country.
"His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses," China Aid Founder and President Bob Fu said. "He will be the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution."
Chinese authorities continue to remove crosses from church rooftops in several provinces, claiming that the issue concerns building code violations. A number of persecution watchdog groups, however, including International Christian Concern, have pointed out that the ruling Communist Party is concerned about the rise of Christians in the country, and wants to do all it can to suppress that growth.
Hundreds of Christians, including other pastors, were arrested last year for protesting against church raids, which have also resulted in police closing down entire churches.
Back in December, officials closed down Huoshi Church in Guiyang, though pastor Su Tianfu Su said that all the church ever did was care for disadvantaged people.
"We feel we're a faithful group which has done nothing but a lot of charitable work in Guiyang by reaching out to those in need, including orphans and the sick and the elderly," pastor Su said.
The Shanghaiist website pointed out that Chongyi Church protested against the forced cross removals in statements last year, arguing that the crackdown "profanes Christianity's most basic beliefs and tramples on the law and spirit of religious freedom."
After Gu was dismissed by government officials from his pastoral position earlier this month, Gu and his wife wrote that the Church is "faced with an unprecedented, heart-chilling time of testing, and we shall all have to overcome by the grace of God."
"We will walk with Chongyi Church, the Lord's Church, through all trials and tribulations," they added.
"No matter what happens in the future, you will see us serving at Chongyi, unless the Lord says otherwise. How we serve may change, but our heart for the Lord and for our flock will never change, because we are servants of God."
ICC explained that Gu is believed to be kept at what experts call a "black jail," where detainees are watched 24/7 and are allowed no contact with the outside world. The group added that at least 20 Christians who stood up to the crackdown in Zheijiang in 2015 were sent to such black jails.