A Communist party campaign during which crosses have been stripped from the roofs of more than 1,200 Chinese churches is being conducted “for the sake of safety and beauty”, a government official has claimed.

Human rights activists accuse authorities in Zhejiang province in eastern China of using the protracted campaign to slow Christianity’s growth in what is one of the country’s most churchgoing regions.

By some estimates, China is now home to 100 million Christians, compared with the Communist party’s 88 million members.

Since the government campaign began in late 2013, hundreds of places of worship have had bright red crosses removed. Some churches have been completely demolished, while civil servants have been banned from practising religion. Some observers suspect the campaign has the backing of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and could be a “pilot project” before a nationwide crackdown.

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