In the city of Yining in north-west China local Catholics built a soaring church. Beneath two red, blue and gold striped domes stood two statues. Between them rose a giant cross. At least, it did until February 27. That was when officials descended on the church, tearing down the domes, the saints and the cross. Then, according to the respected site ucanews.com, they went inside, took down the Stations of the Cross and even chipped off cross-shaped decorations in the pews.

The church is one of the latest victims of what China’s critics are calling the “new Cultural Revolution”. They argue that the present crackdown on Christianity is comparable to the one led by Red Guards between 1966 and 1976.

Why would Chinese officials tolerate an iconoclastic attack on a Catholic church when they are on the verge of a historic agreement with the Holy See? There are several possible explanations.

One is that the church is located in the relatively obscure Xinjiang province and officials may have hoped that the assault could be kept out of the Western media.

Another is that local party members with a special animus for Christianity targeted the church without Beijing’s permission. The region is notorious for the oppression of religious minorities: thousands of Muslim Uighurs have recently been sent to prison or re-education camps.

A third possibility is that local apparatchiks thought that, given the new anti-religious winds blowing from the capital, targeting the church would please their superiors.

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