China says pastor suspected of misappropriating funds

China's state-sanctioned Protestant church body says a pastor in a province where authorities have been cracking down on churches is under investigation for suspected misappropriation of funds.

The Zhejiang province branch of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement said on its website Monday that Gu Yuese was also accused of other unspecified economic crimes.

The notice expressed "deep shock and regret" over the news and said Gu's alleged crimes were his personal behavior and unconnected to the movement in general.

In an apparent attempt to allay doubts about their allegations, it urged parishoners to be "clear-headed" about the developments and said all were equal under Chinese law.

Gu has openly opposed the provincial government's destruction of church crosses and other outward symbols of the Christian faith.

His Chongyi Church in the provincial capital of Hangzhou is among the largest in China. Calls to the church on Monday rang unanswered.

The website notice did not say when or where Gu was detained, and people who took calls at its office said they had no additional information about the case.

However, the U.S.-based support group China Aid said Gu's family had last week received a notice that he had been placed under "residential surveillance in designated location," usually a precursor to formal arrest. It said his wife, Zhou Lianmei, had also been taken away and their home searched.

Gu's arrest marks a "major escalation" in the government's campaign against those who opposed the cross demolitions, China Aid said.

While authorities have long targeted unsanctioned "house churches," the current crackdown is remarkable because it involves members of the usually compliant official religious bodies. Gu had served as provincial head of the movement's official sister body, the China Christian Council, as well as a member of its standing committee at the national level.

The cross demolitions, many in the city of Zhejiang that has a thriving Christian population, targeted both Catholic and Protestant churches, drawing a rare protest from priests outside local government offices.

The move against the churches comes amid a sweeping campaign against those the ruling Communist Party sees as its opponents. Among those swept up are lawyers and others who have attempted to use Chinese law to assert personal rights, as President Xi Jinping seeks to reinforce the party's absolute authority in fields ranging from national defense to higher education.

Rights activists and democracy campaigners say is the most intense crackdown on dissent since the bloody suppression of 1989 pro-democracy protests in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed.