Chinese authorities' bulldozing of a large Protestant church shows the need for greater respect for religious freedom in the country, a U.S. congressman has said.

"The destruction of church buildings and the detention of religious leaders in Zhejiang Province is a stunning and somber reminder that many hardliners in the Chinese government still want to eradicate the religious freedom of the Chinese people and control all practice of religion," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said May 1.

Smith is the chair of the subcommittee on human rights within the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He also co-chairs the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

"Religious freedom is a foundational and universal right and a defining characteristic of stable and prosperous societies. China must start to see the growth of religious faith as something to encourage not destroy," the congressman said.

In late April, government authorities in the southeastern city of Wenzhou bulldozed the Sanjiang Church, a $4 million structure capable of holding 3,000 worshippers that had been under construction for more than 12 years. The government claimed that the building broke planning rules, the BBC's China editor Carrie Gracie said in a May 4 blog entry.

Congregants said that they had previously enjoyed good relations with the local government and planners had not objected to the construction, Gracie said. Some officials encouraged them to spread Christianity on the grounds that the city's Christians are law-abiding and good citizens.

They attributed the destruction of their church to a difference between local and provincial party officials, the latter of whom were offended at the prominent display of Christian crosses.

There are about 1 million Christians in Wenzhou and churches dominate the cityscape.

Catholic places of worship have also been targeted in the city.

On April 26, about 50 government workers sealed off Wenzhou's Longgang Hill, a site of Catholic pilgrimage with statues of Jesus' Crucifixion that covers almost an acre of land. The workers bricked off giant statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph while removing other statues. Other religious decorations were destroyed, UCA News reports.

Like the Sanjiang Church, authorities claimed the site was built illegally.

Rep. Smith said the destruction of the church is "a devastating blow" to the congregation and will be "a source of broader social instability and distrust."

"It has already served to unify diverse religious groups against the government's extreme policies," he stated.

Rep. Smith's office said that there are an estimated 80-100 million Christians in China. Some estimates suggest that their numbers could grow to 160 million by 2025.