Zhejiang Official Says Cross Removals Will Continue

As Christians in Zhejiang protest against the forced removal of church crosses, a provincial official has said that the campaign will continue despite rumors that some planned cross demolitions had been halted. The Global Times reports:

Officials of , East China’s Province said Tuesday they will continue to remove “unsafe” rooftop crosses from churches, despite claims by local pastors that the campaign has been suspended, the Global Times learned.

“We haven’t received any notice to halt the campaign,” said an official surnamed Wang from the office of “three revise and one demolition” in Leqing, Zhejiang Province. “The demolition is still going on and one cross was removed a few days ago.”

[…] Pastors in Wenzhou reached by the Global Times said they have heard that the demolition was suspended in many places.

Officials from the local ethnic and religious affairs bureau in Rui’an, a region under Wenzhou, did not respond to questions on whether the campaign was suspended when reached by the Global Times, but said “officials are busy handling problems caused by the Typhoon Soudelor” in the past week. [Source]

Late last month, an anonymous religious affairs official from Wenzhou, a historically Christian city in Zhejiang sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East,” denied suspicion of a regional crackdown on , claiming that crosses were being “relocated” for “safety concerns.” According to the official, crosses have been targeted as part of a “three revise and one demolition” urbanization campaign aimed at “building a more beautiful Zhejiang.” The ongoing campaign, which has seen over 1,200 crosses (and by some estimates upwards of 1,500) removed and several churches demolished since its 2013 launch, also sparked protests last year. Last April, officials similarly denied a crackdown on the , but a leaked provincial document revealed the regulation of “overly popular” worship to be a regional goal.

Criticism of the demolitions has come from the official government bodies overseeing Christianity in Zhejiang, and high-ranking regional clergy with ties to the state have called for Christians to “cry out” against the campaign. Last year, the State Administration for Religious Affairs announced plans to “continue to promote the development of Christianity […] in a way compatible with the country’s path of socialism,”and a question looms over how much central government support the Zhejiang campaign is receiving, and whether other provinces could soon follow suit. From a comprehensive outline of the situation in Zhejiang by The New York Times’ Ian Johnson:

[…] The question many ask is whether the campaign against crosses has the backing of China’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, and whether it will therefore spread. Carsten Vala, a political scientist at Loyola University in Maryland, said the government drive fit into the overall context of a crackdown on civil liberties that has increased since Mr. Xi took power in 2012.

“Along with the other limits on all of civil society, it’s in line with the new Xi Jinping approach,” Professor Vala said.

Mr. Xi was the head of Zhejiang, and the current party secretary there served under him. Other provinces with big Christian populations have not begun similar crackdowns.

Fan Yafeng, director of an independent research organization in Beijing that studies Christianity, said other provincial leaders were watching Zhejiang. If it appeared politically costly to remove the crosses, they might not follow suit, he said.

“But as Zhejiang’s removal of the cross campaign escalates, it has also triggered unprecedented backlash,” Mr. Fan said. The strong response from Christians had exceeded the government’s expectation, he said. [Source]

Radio Free Asia reports on steady resistance shown by parishioners in Wenzhou:

The churchgoers, many of them located in Zhejiang’s coastal city of Wenzhou, have been remarkably eloquent in writing open letters.

They also sing hymns in front of armed policemen, stage church rooftop protests, and cite China’s own constitution, which promises them freedom of religion.

Protestants in Wenzhou have also recently begun making small red-painted wooden crosses to display across Zhejiang as another form of civil disobedience.

[…] In some cases, pastors have been detained or arrested. In August, authorities in Zhejiang detained seven Christians on suspicion of crimes including “embezzlement” and public order offenses after they tried to prevent government-hired workers from demolishing a cross on their church.

[…] Wenzhou may appear threatening to Party officials because many in its large and relatively well-to-do population of middle class entrepreneurs have adopted Christianity as their religion.

They thus combine financial clout with a strong devotion to Christian beliefs. […] [Source]

Also read China Change’s recent translation of “The Ongoing War Against Religion in China,” an essay published by Zhao Chu last year on the government’s recent change in tact from toleration of Christianity’s rise to “undeclared war” against it.