One of China's leading Christian pastors, 'Joseph' Gu Yuese, is officially under investigation for suspicion of embezzling funds, state-backed church authorities in Zhejiang province say, following his voiced opposition to a campaign to remove crosses from atop churches.
Pastor Gu's Chongyi church, which has a congregation of 10,000 followers, is known internationally as the largest Protestant church in the Chinese-speaking world.
"We feel deeply shocked and filled with regret," the government-backed Hangzhou Christian Council said in a statement on its website regarding Pastor Gu's investigation, adding that the investigation was due to his individual conduct.
The council gave no further details of the charges or evidence against Pastor Gu in its post late on Friday night.
It said it had been notified by a "relevant department", but did not say who was conducting the investigation. Police in Hangzhou did not immediately respond to calls for comment. Pastor Gu could not be reached for comment.
Zhejiang, on China's eastern coast, is known for its large Christian population. Previous campaigns by authorities there to dismantle crosses on top of churches have incensed the local religious population.
Pastor Gu, who had frequently met with visiting foreign guests and appeared at government-organised ceremonies, previously spoke out against the campaign to tear down crosses, according to a few of his followers.
Two Gu supporters in Zhejiang told Reuters by phone that he had recently sent a message to followers that was critical of the cross removal campaign. They declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
It was unclear whether Pastor Gu's investigation was linked to the note.
"Ironically, he was kind of elevated as almost a poster boy in the government-established system for showcasing religious freedom in China," said Bob Fu, director of the ChinaAid Association, a Texas-based Christian non-profit organisation that advocates for freedom of religion in China.
Authorities in the region have said crosses are being removed because they violate regulations against illegal structures. Rights groups say demolishing crosses restricts Christianity and religious freedoms.
The ruling Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognised religious institutions to operate.
Protests broke out in 2014 in the heavily Christian city of Wenzhou, also in Zhejiang, over the government's cross demolition campaign.