Official Says Cross Removals for “Safety Concerns”

A resurgence in cross removals at Christian churches in Zhejiang province has again led Christians in the region to suspect an official crackdown on the religion. The Global Times reports that an official in , a historically Christian region of , denies that the removed crosses are being demolished, claiming instead that they have been relocated for safety concerns:

An anonymous official from Wenzhou’s ethnic and religious affairs bureau told the Global Times that the authorities are “relocating” the cross from the top of the church to its façade and indoors for the sake of safety and beauty.

“Generally speaking, the church staff and people [religious faithful] are very supportive,” said the official. “We talked with some people who were not cooperating with the removal in a gentle way.”

The “three revise and one demolition” is a three-year campaign aimed at hastening urbanization and “building a more beautiful Zhejiang,” according to an official document issued by the provincial government in Zhejiang in 2013.

The document orders local governments to “revise” old neighborhoods, old industrial sites and urban villages and demolish illegal structures by 2015. [Source]

Amid this campaign, over 1,200 crosses have been removed and several churches have been razed. A report from The Guardian’s Tom Phillips outlines the campaign’s continuation despite widespread local opposition and international criticism, countering the anonymous official’s claim that the faithful are “generally supportive” of it:

Since the government campaign began in late 2013, hundreds of places of worship have had bright red crosses removed. Some churches have been completely demolished, while civil servants have been banned from practising religion. Some observers suspect the campaign has the backing of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and could be a “pilot project” before a nationwide crackdown.

[…] In fact, there is growing anger among China’s rapidly growing Christian community over the campaign, which has affected both Catholic and Protestant congregations. Last Friday, a group of Catholic clergy – including an 89-year-old bishop – took to the streets to protest. “What they are doing feels like something from the Cultural Revolution era,” complained one religious leader from Zhejiang.

[…] Removals and demolitions have gathered pace in recent weeks despite such protests. A five-storey church in the city of Wenling was demolished “voluntarily”, the government-controlled Zhejiang Daily newspaper announced on Sunday. The newspaper claimed the church had expanded without going through the proper approval process. “It not only affected city planning but also posed a severe threat to road safety,” the report said.

China Change’s Yaxue Cao has published an interview with an anonymous pastor from Wenzhou providing a comprehensive description of in Zhejiang, how the current government campaign (and resistance to it) has changed over the past two years, and an ongoing debate among clergy, activists, and intellectuals over whether it is being led on the national or local level:

YC: What’s the current situation like?

L: Things are very different now from before. Resistance is much more widespread and difficult to suppress. Resistance used to be isolated and focused on a particular church. Now, with this campaign of total demolition, everyone feels like this is no longer simply about tearing down crosses. It’s not merely about symbols—they want to attack your beliefs. Everyone feels like this is the beginning of a deeper repression, where they first do away with your symbols and then attack at a deeper level, destroying your internal organization, your doctrine, your church finances, even your pulpits.

For example, no matter whether you’re a “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (church sanctioned by the government) or a “house church,” no one discusses government policies or regulations on Sundays. Now, they want us to take time during our Sunday worship to let religious-affairs officials talk about religious policies and regulations from the pulpit. This has led to extremely fierce opposition—no one’s willing to allow this.

It wasn’t like this before. At worst, you’d see the Chinese government cultivate a group of people within the church to act as its agents and the things they wanted publicized tended to be some government policies, like aligning moral education with official ideology. But you cannot tamper with doctrine or turn pulpits over to religious-affairs cadres. There’s even resistance to this from inside the “Three-Self churches.” […] [Source]

At the Hong Kong Free Press, Vicky Wong reports that a man was beaten unconscious by authorities while protesting a cross removal in Wenzhou earlier this week:

According to Boxun – a US-based news website covering human rights and political issues in China – the latest fracas took place on Tuesday outside a church in the town of Pingyan [a county in Wenzhou]. Violence erupted after local officials tried to forcibly enter the church to remove a crucifix.

A witness quoted by the website said worshippers had attempted to block the doors of the church as authorities broke in, knocking several people to the ground. During the clashes, a male protester was beaten unconscious and was taken to hospital, the site reported. [Source]

Also see a report from the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Blog on decades of foreign academic misunderstanding of Christianity’s presence in modern China, long believed to have diminished after the Communist victory but in reality moved to less visible, underground “house churches.” According to author David E. Mungello, “Historians no longer debate why Christianity has died out in China because there is so much evidence of its presence.”