LINFEN, China — Towering eight stories over wheat fields, the Golden Lamp Church was built to serve nearly 50,000 worshippers in the gritty heart of China's coal country.
But that was before hundreds of police and hired thugs descended on the mega-church, smashing doors and windows, seizing Bibles and sending dozens of worshippers to hospitals with serious injuries, members and activists say
Today, the church's co-pastors are in jail. The gates to the church complex in the northern province of Shanxi are locked and a police armored personnel vehicle sits outside.
The closure of what may be China's first mega-church is the most visible sign that the communist government is determined to rein in the rapid spread of Christianity, with a crackdown in recent months that church leaders call the harshest in years.
Authorities describe the actions against churches as stemming from land disputes, but the congregations under attack are among the most successful in China's growing "house church" movement, which rejects the state-controlled church in favor of liturgical independence and a more passionate, evangelical outlook.
While the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians are required to worship in churches run by state-controlled organizations: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Roman Catholics.
But more and more Chinese are opting to choose their own churches, despite them being technically illegal and subject to police harassment. Christians worshipping in China's independent churches are believed to number upwards of 60 million, compared to about 20 million who worship in the state church, according to numbers provided by scholars and church activists.
House churches have been around for decades, but their growth has accelerated in recent decades, producing larger and larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes, giving the movement its name.
Their expansion and growing influence has deeply unsettled China's rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge communist authority. Fears that Tibetan Buddhism and Islam promote separatism among Tibetans and Uighurs also drive restrictions on those religions.
"They are so afraid of rallying points developing for gathering of elements of civil society," said Daniel Bays, who follows Chinese Christianity at Calvin College, a religious school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
While house churches have faced varying degrees of repression depending on the region and political climate, the latest crackdown appears to specifically target the largest congregations.
Authorities want to dismantle large churches "before they grow out of total control," said Bob Fu, a former Communist Party researcher in Beijing who now heads the China Aid Association, a Texas-based church monitoring group.
At least two other large churches have recently faced similar crackdowns.
In Beijing in October, authorities locked parishioners of Shouwang house church out of the space they had rented to worship in. In Shanghai, the Wangbang congregation faced a similar lockout. Both congregations had grown to more than 1,000 members.
Shouwang and Wangbang church leaders have not been detained, but activists fear further arrests are coming.
In a brief phone conversation, Wangbang's pastor Cui Quan said worship continued in small groups while he fought to have their lease restored. He declined to give other details.
Christianity was long associated with foreign interference in traditionally Buddhist and Taoist China, and came under heavy attack after the 1949 Communist revolution.
The most onerous restrictions were lifted after the death of communist leader Mao Zedong in 1976. Although Christians still account for a less than 10 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, recent years have seen rapid growth in house churches in both cities and rural areas,
Adding to official concerns about their numbers, house-church Christians also emphasize missionary work – illegal in China – and some have even operated an underground network to help smuggle North Korean refugees and Uighurs out of China in defiance of the security forces.
The Golden Lamp Church was built by husband and wife evangelists Wang Xiaoguang and Yang Rongli as a permanent home for their followers, whose numbers had soared to more than 50,000.
The couple, administrators at the provincial teachers' college, had been preaching in the region around the city of Linfen since 1992, establishing a network of three dozen communities meeting in improvised spaces such as factory dormitories and greenhouses. They also attracted thousands to tent revival meetings.
According to Bob Fu, Shanxi authorities grumbled as the church was being built last year, but did not try to stop work and offered few, if any, signs that an impending crackdown.
On a rainy Sunday in mid-September, some 400 police officers and hired thugs descended on more than a dozen church properties around Linfen, smashing doors and windows and hauling off computers, Bibles, and church funds, according to accounts posted online by church members and their allies.
Those accounts said worshippers who resisted were beaten, with dozens hospitalized with serious injuries.
Wang, Yang, and three other church leaders were convicted on Nov. 25 on charges including illegally occupying agricultural land and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic. Yang, 51, received a seven-year sentence, while Wang, 56, and the others received terms of three to four years. Five others were sentenced without trial to two years in a labor camp.
Other church leaders have gone into hiding.
Courts, police and government officials in Linfen refused to comment on the claims of violence and persecution. A local Communist Party spokesman said only that the case centered on the mega-church's lack of planning approval.
"We have always supported and allowed everybody to believe in religion. But the church itself is an illegally constructed building," said the spokesman, who would give only his surname, Wang.
A lawyer for Wang and Yang, Li Fangping, said the church had applied for permits to build the church from the local religious affairs bureau and the land use authority, but received no reply.
Almost three months after the crackdown, people in and around Linfen refuse to discuss the church, and police vehicles remain parked on virtually every corner of the neighborhood where the Golden Lamp is located.