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By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) - One of China's highest profile former pastors, Gu Yuese, has been formally arrested for the second time on suspicion of embezzling funds, people close to his family said on Friday.
Police sent an arrest warrant to Gu's family on Jan. 7, saying he was being detained on suspicion of misappropriating funds, according to China Aid, a Texas-based Christian nonprofit that advocates for freedom of religion in China.
Director of China Aid Bob Fu said the arrest would make Gu the highest-ranked religious official to be removed from office since the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, when many Chinese religious figures were persecuted.
"This will send a chilling signal to any free thinkers in the Chinese church," Fu told Reuters.
China's Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognised religious institutions.
Fu said an electronic copy of the arrest warrant had been shared with his organisation by Gu's family.
Reuters could not verify the contents of the warrant, and could not immediately reach Gu's family for comment.
The detention centre named in the notice declined to comment when contacted by Reuters by telephone.
A member of Gu's former congregation, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the arrest and said he had been turned away from Gu's house when he attempted to visit in mid-December.
An investigation of Gu on suspicion of the same charges was announced by government-backed Hangzhou Christian Council in January last year.
Contacted by Reuters about Gu's arrest on Friday, the council said it was unaware of the situation.
The Zhejiang Provincial Christian Council stripped Gu of his position as committee head last February, over his arrest in relation to the investigation, which broke council regulations, state media said at the time.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has unleashed a sweeping campaign against graft since coming to power four years ago.
Gu had previously served as pastor of a congregation of about 10,000 people at Chongyi Church in the coastal city of Hangzhou, in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Zhejiang is home to a large number of Chinese Christians. Previous campaigns there by authorities to dismantle crosses on top of churches have incensed worshippers.
Authorities have said crosses were removed for infringing regulations against illegal structures. Rights groups say the demolitions restrict religious freedom.
After the original investigation, members of Chongyi Church's congregation told Reuters that Gu had written a notice criticising the demolitions.
It is unclear whether that investigation or Gu's reported arrest are related to the note, however.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)