Christian groups in China have told the BBC they are increasingly worried that the authorities are targeting them because of their religion, as the past year has seen an “escalated campaign” to remove outdoor crosses from church buildings.

The rise in demolitions in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where there are thousands of churches, has surprised many Christians, US-based activist Bob Fu told the BBC. “So far over 1,500 crosses have been forcefully removed,” he said.

The report says that analysts believe China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, to be behind the campaign to remove crosses, citing his “nervousness about collusion between forces inside and outside China”.

One Christian says: “The government coming to demolish [our church’s cross] is difficult for us to bear. We are Christians, we have never opposed the government. Why don’t they let us believe in God?”

Resistance to the crackdown seems to be growing, according to The New York Times, with even government-approved churches (attended by about half of China’s estimated 60m Christians) speaking out against the apparent campaign.