LINFEN -- Towering eight stories over wheat fields, the Golden Lamp Church was built to serve nearly 50,000 worshippers in the gritty heart of China's coal country.
But that was before hundreds of police and hired thugs descended on the mega-church, smashing doors and windows, seizing Bibles and sending dozens of worshippers to hospitals with serious injuries, members and activists say.
The closure of what may be China's first mega-church is the most visible sign that the communist government is determined to rein in the rapid spread of Christianity, with a crackdown in recent months that church leaders call the harshest in years.
Authorities describe the actions against churches as stemming from land disputes, but the congregations under attack are among the most successful in China's growing "house church" movement, which rejects the state-controlled church in favor of liturgical independence and a more passionate, evangelical outlook.
While the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians are required to worship in churches run by state-controlled organizations: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Roman Catholics.
But more and more Chinese are opting to choose their own churches, despite them being technically illegal and subject to police harassment. Christians worshipping in China's independent churches are believed to number upwards of 60 million, compared to about 20 million who worship in the state church, according to numbers provided by scholars and church activists.
While house churches have faced varying degrees of repression depending on the region and political climate, the latest crackdown appears to specifically target the largest congregations.
Authorities want to dismantle large churches "before they grow out of total control," said Bob Fu, a former Communist Party researcher in Beijing who now heads the China Aid Association, a Texas-based church monitoring group.
The Golden Lamp Church was built by husband and wife evangelists Wang Xiaoguang and Yang Rongli as a permanent home for their followers, whose numbers had soared to more than 50,000.
According to Bob Fu, Shanxi authorities grumbled as the church was being built last year, but did not try to stop work and offered few, if any, signs that an impending crackdown.
On a rainy Sunday in mid-September, some 400 police officers and hired thugs descended on more than a dozen church properties around Linfen, smashing doors and windows and hauling off computers, Bibles, and church funds, according to accounts posted online by church members and their allies.
Courts, police and government officials in Linfen refused to comment on the claims of violence and persecution. A local Communist Party spokesman said only that the case centered on the mega-church's lack of planning approval.