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 tête-à-tête is an example of the fine line the 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 church member 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 member 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 church member, said she's trying to adjust. "How can you have a church without a cross?" she 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.