The demolition by the Zhejiang government of more than 400 Christian churches and crosses in the city of Wenzhou is turning into a national campaign, with believers from other cities going there to form mobile protection brigades and lawyers offering to defend arrested people.
The demolition program was launched in January by Xia Baolong, the province’s hardline party secretary, who declared during a visit to Zhoushan that the church in Baiquan county was too prominent and extravagant and should be demolished.
Since then, the demolitions have been carried out in a highly organised way, usually in the middle of the night, with dozens of police, armed police and construction gangs with heavy equipment.
In response, the faithful have attempted to block them by surrounding the churches. They, too, are highly organised, with messages sent by mobile phones and the internet to assemble a large number of people in a short time.
On April 28, the towering Sanjiang church which occupied an area of one hectare in Yongjia county was demolished while believers surrounded it weeping and protesting. This church belonged to the official Three-Self movement that is the official Protestant church in China.
Wenzhou is known as the “Jerusalem of China”, with 1.2 million Protestants, about 20 per cent of the city’s population, the largest proportion in the country.
Since then, the demolitions have accelerated, mainly of crosses that are visible to car drivers on highways. They have attracted attention nationwide, through social media, as well as in Hong Kong and overseas.
Distressed by the destruction of the symbol of their faith, believers from other provinces have gone to Wenzhou to form mobile protection brigades on duty day and night in front of churches believed to be at risk. Dozens of people have been injured in clashes between them and the police.
In addition, a team of human rights lawyers have filed a lawsuit against the Wenzhou government for arresting people who have committed no crime.
For its part, the Zhejiang government says that the demolitions are a small part of the removal of illegal structures of many kinds needed to create more land in an overcrowded province. It says that demolition of religious buildings accounts for less than one per cent of total removals.
Behind the campaign is rising alarm within the government at the rapid growth of the Christian church, especially Protestantism.
According to official figures, there are 40 million Protestants in China, accounting for 2.9 per cent of the population and 56,000 Protestant churches and meeting places. Each year 500,000 are baptized.
There are in addition “family churches” that refuse to register with what they consider an illegitimate authority. No one knows the number of their members. Estimates range from 30 million to 60 million.
The government in May this year issued a Blue Paper on National Security which said that, on the ideological front, China faced “serious threats” in many sectors, including “religious infiltration”.
“The hostile western forces are using many forms of religious infiltration,” it said. “Their scope is growing wider and their methods more hidden, including public and secret forms. They include strong elements of provocation and deception. This religious infiltration poses an extremely serious threat to the ideological security of modern China and is very dangerous for our national security. We must raise our vigilance.”
In line with this policy, the United Front Department ordered all the Protestant seminaries in China to end their contacts with religious seminaries and ministers in the west.
On August 6, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said that Chinese Christian theology should be compatible with the country’s path of socialism. “The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
This is the first time the term “Chinese Christian theology” was used in public by a senior religious official.
Ministers from Hong Kong churches, even though they are Chinese, are suspect. When they go to the mainland, they are often followed and interviewed by police.
Wu Xiao-he, a Hong Kong pastor, said that when they went to the mainland to assist those hit by natural disasters, they were told not to pray for the victims nor provide Bibles. “After I arrive, police will come to the hotel and ask all kinds of questions, usually exceeding one hour.
“The rapid growth of Protestants has aroused the attention of the government which believes they may influence its political power. The demolition of the crosses and churches is only the first step. In the future, there will be more severe measures against churches.”
The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.
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