Stephen Harper talked Canada-China trade with a Communist Party chief who has been accused of directing the removal of crosses from church steeples.
The tete-a-tete is an example of the fine line the Canadian prime minister is walking as he tries to reconcile boosting trade with China, by some measures now the largest economy in the world, and serious concerns within the Conservative Party about Beijing's treatment of religious believers.
The Prime Minister's Office says Mr. Harper raised the issue of religious freedom during his Friday meeting with Xia Baolong, the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang province, in the prosperous eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.
Dozens of churches in Zhejiang have received orders from local authorities this year forcing them to remove visible crosses from the exterior of their building, according to the U.S.-based Christian group ChinaAid.
A church named Gulou in Hangzhou is among those now lacking a cross on its steeple.
Xiao Dihua, a parishioner and caretaker, says on Aug. 12 this year, Chinese police came and took down the cross, saying it violated height restrictions and was an "illegal construction."
Another parishioner who would only give her family name, Zhu, said the removal pains her.
"You can't face God if we come here to a church without a cross," she said. "It's very hard to face God."
The New York Times, citing internal government documents, has called the manoeuvres a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of Christianity, China's fastest-growing religion.
"Xia Baolong came to inspect last autumn, and he saw the cross," an official in the Wenzhou government's religious hierarchy told The Times. "He said: 'Take down the cross. It's so high, and it's not appropriate.'"
Industry Minister James Moore said the Conservatives continue to defend human rights.
"Of course there are always opportunities that we seek to not only expand free trade but certainly assert the principles of freedom and democracy and respect for human rights and diversities," Mr. Moore said.
Ms. Zhu, the Gulou parishioner, said she's trying to adjust.
"How can you have a church without a cross?" Ms. Zhu asks.
"We have a cross in our hearts."
Asked what Mr. Harper told Mr. Xia about the removal of visible exterior crosses, and the demolishing of churches, which is also taking place, Jason MacDonald, the director of communications for the Prime Minister, said the Conservative Leader spoke up on the matter.
"He indicated that Canadians would be concerned to know that religious freedoms were being restricted," Mr. MacDonald said.
"Beyond that it was a private conversation," he said.
Mr. Harper, who has alternated as Prime Minister between a hawk on China who wouldn't sell out to "the almighty dollar" and a pragmatist calling for deeper economic ties, will now try to strike a rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Conservatives have made the defence of religious rights a major element of their foreign policy, even appointing an ambassador-level official to draw attention to mistreatment of religious minorities.
Back home, however, divisions over China within the governing caucus endure even eight years after the Conservatives won office.
One of Mr. Harper's key lieutenants, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, is leery of moving too close to Beijing given its dismal human-rights record. Mr. Kenney, who played a key role in helping the Conservatives win a majority by converting new Canadians into party supporters, wields a lot of influence in caucus.
Ministers more inclined to engagement with China include Foreign Minister John Baird, Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Treasury Board President Tony Clement, former Conservative aides say. The reasons? China is now the biggest economy in the world by some measures and Canada's second-largest trading partner.
Relations cooled after Mr. Harper's last trip to Beijing in 2012 when Canada and China clinched a foreign investment deal, a move that China experts attribute to growing ambivalence in public opinion polls about closer ties to the Chinese state.
Since then, the Canadian government has barred Chinese state-owned companies from further investment in the oil sands, raised concern in the media about security risks of buying technology from a major telecom company in China and publicly blamed Beijing for hacking Canadian government computers.