A prominent pastor in China, Gu Yuese, is being investigated for corruption, according to local church authorities in Zhejiang province.
Mr Gu, the head of one of China’s biggest state-sanctioned churches, is accused of embezzling funds.
A group of Hong Kong-based Christians have since alleged his probe is linked to his open opposition to a government crackdown on Christian activity.
China is officially atheist but guarantees religious freedom.
However, all churches have to be approved by the state and authorities keep a close eye on their activities to contain their influence.
‘Closely related’ to crackdown
Mr Gu is the pastor of the Chongyi Church in Zhejiang, which has thousands of followers. Attempts by BBC Chinese to contact the church for comment did not succeed.
The local chapters of state-backed church authorities China Christian Council and Three-Self Patriotic Movement posted similarly-worded statements on their websites on Friday about Mr Gu’s arrest.
They said they had learned in “recent days” that Mr Gu was “being investigated because of suspicions of economic issues, including embezzling money”, adding that the matter had “to do with one individual’s behaviour”.
But a group of about 40 Christians in Hong Kong, some of whom are church leaders, have alleged in an open letter to the media that Mr Gu’s arrest was connected to his opposition to government efforts to contain churches in the province.
Zhejiang, a province located in the south east of the country, is home to many churches, particularly in the city of Wenzhou, which saw a crackdown on displays of crosses in 2014, and again last year. Mr Gu had openly opposed this.
The Christian group said they believed Mr Gu’s arrest was “not an isolated case, but it is closely related” to the 2014 crackdown.
They also alleged that after local churches objected to the tearing down of crosses last July, authorities began investigating Chongyi Church “in order to cook up charges and suppress suspected dissidents”.
In August last year pastor Bao Guohua, his wife and several church employees were detained in Zhejiang, and were also accused of embezzlement as well as disrupting social order.
Their church’s lawyer told the BBC at the time they were being punished for protesting against the removal of their church cross.
Authorities have justified the tearing down of crosses, and in some cases the demolition of church buildings, by saying they were illegally constructed and broke planning rules.
But rights groups say such actions are an effort to rein in their power and run contrary to the guarantee of religious freedom in China’s constitution.