Friday, July 4, 2014

Chinese Christian Persecution Increases

China's Christians fear new persecution after latest wave of church demolitions

Once a hub of Christianity, worshippers in Wenzhou fear their faith is facing its biggest threat since the Cultural Revolution
Christian and Catholic in China

When we reached Sanjiang, in Zhejiang province, an elderly woman was angrily telling the pastor how at the end of April police dispersed members of her congregation and neighbouring ones who had come to protect their new Protestant church from being bulldozed. Several pastors were arrested and many detained, including those from the Sanjiang church – one of the officially sanctioned (and government controlled) "patriotic" churches. Many supporters were also arrested, including pastors from the underground house church movement. One, who asked to be referred to only as W, escaped the police raid by hiding in a nearby warehouse.


For years, during her evening walks, the woman had watched the construction work taking place on the massive church, which was just a few hundred metres along the main road from her house. When we were there in May, flashing lights warned us of the police roadblock that had closed off access to the church weeks ago, after the Chinese government ordered it to be pulled down. "They want to remove every trace," said W. The old woman added: "During the Cultural Revolution they burned Bibles, but they didn't remove the crosses." The old church survived the Cultural Revolution, but in such a dilapidated state that it was converted into a mat-weaving factory.

The town of Sanjiang lies on a flat strip of land opposite the city of Wenzhou, where the Ou river broadens before pouring its mass of grey water into the South China Sea, 350km south of Shanghai. The township has been earmarked for a new business district alongside the market gardens, so the local government encouraged a plan for a church worthy of its entrepreneurial ambitions. About 15% of Wenzhou prefecture's 9 million inhabitants are Christian.


Wenzhou has a history of its inhabitants migrating to Europe in the last century. It has been neglected by the Chinese government in recent years. Nevertheless, since the economic reforms, the city has been celebrated as the Chinese capital of private enterprise and Christianity, a mutually advantageous relationship that has given rise to it becoming known as China's "Jerusalem". In the urban sprawl between sea, river and mountain, red crosses dot the skyline, marking – mostly Protestant – places of worship. The city boasts 1,500 churches in every possible architectural form, from elongated white buildings bearing the Chinese character that means love to squat grey brick ones to massive edifices in fake freestone with domes and colonnades.

Cao Nanlai, a Chinese anthropologist, published a book, Constructing China's Jerusalem, about the town's particular social dynamics, with its Christian bosses devoted to both conquering new markets and converting their workers.

The budget for the church in Sanjiang was close to $5m. After nine years of dealing with bureaucracy, raising funds and building work, the massive structure rose from the ground with a 60-metre high tower, a 30-metre long transept and a 50-metre long nave bordered by pilasters and arches. It resembled a European gothic cathedral. An annexe served as a home for the elderly. The cross was mounted on 8 August 2013.

In early 2014, church demolitions were reported in several towns in Zhejiang province, Shanghai's rich hinterland. Many crosses deemed too obtrusive were forcibly taken down. Early in April, a Catholic church in a rural county of Wenzhou was demolished and the cross on a Protestant church destroyed. A dozen other churches received ultimatums to pull down buildings or crosses in a campaign against "illegal structures", launched in Zhejiang in 2013. However, Christians in Wenzhou observed that the campaign only targeted churches.

Orders were obeyed in some places, but Sanjiang resisted. "We knew that even if we removed the cross it wouldn't stop there, and therefore we had to stand firm," said W. Although the surface area of the building had exceeded the authorised size, the Sanjiang church administration was confident because its "model church" had received local government approval. "Finally, a compromise was reached when the authorities agreed only to knock down the top two floors of the annexe. But they didn't keep their word," said one evangelical minister from Wenzhou, who asked to be referred to as "Peace".

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