The pastor of China’s largest official Protestant church has been detained and accused with embezzling funds. Rights activists claim his detention is “politically motivated”, after he spoke out against the government’s removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province.

Gu Yuese is pastor of Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, a government-approved church with around 10,000 members. He was accused of embezzling 10 million Yuan (around US$1.6m).

“His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses,” said China Aid’s Bob Fu. “He will be the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution.”

“This is really quite an escalation,” he told Christian Science Monitor. “It sends a signal to silence any potential future dissenting voices from within the Church. It tells everyone to shut up.”

His wife, Zhou Lianmei, was also detained and warned not to leave the country. A coalition of over 1,000 church leaders in Hong Kong signed a petition for his release.

Sources: Time, Reuters