A group of Protestant churches in China’s Zhejiang Province are staging an unusual tryst with local authorities who have knocked down the cross from atop their churches: They are fighting back and restoring the traditional symbol of Christianity.
In some cases, the often elderly evangelical resisters in 16 churches around the cities of Lishui and Fuyang have persistently replaced the cross three times in a single day. So far, the restored crosses – some of makeshift raw lumber – remain.
Such civil disobedience is part of a mostly polite but intensifying standoff between the faithful and party authorities in the wake of a state campaign to target Protestants in the place where their numbers are growing and their churches are visible.
A number of churchgoers who have conducted late night and early morning campaigns to reaffix the cross say they are acting out of conviction and aren't afraid. One man, Zhao Lizhong, who tried in early May to defend the Pinguan church in Lishui, has not been heard from since police escorted him from the site.
Christian pastors in China are concerned that the state activity in Zhejiang is a prelude to a larger crackdown.
The recent pushback began in May after the provincial government announced that crosses must come off all churches in the province. That brought a rare open letter from the region’s largest evangelical church stating that the policy is “likely to cause chaos … and religious conflicts.”
“The churches are restoring their cross over and over again,” says Zan Aizong, a local evangelical and former journalist, in a telephone interview. “They are being bold and very courageous.”
Since December 2013, police in Zhejiang have stripped crosses from more than 450 churches, according to ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian human rights monitor. Police with large cranes have often shown up with no warning. They demolished prominent sanctuaries, including the $5 million Sanjiang edifice in Wenzhou just as it was completing construction.
Today in fact, June 8, authorities sent bulldozers and backhoes to demolish a huge church called Yanxie located in Wenling in Zhejiang Province.
“The central goal of this campaign is to minimize Christianity and to limit its access to ordinary people,” says Bob Fu, director of ChinaAid.
Unlike previous campaigns that lasted a few months, the current “three rectifications and one demolition” policy has lasted at least two years. It has been part of a media campaign aimed at churches, and now includes the infiltration of congregations in Wenzhou in the attempt to discover party members and their families who worship. In the Communist party-state, being both Christian and a party member is not allowed.
Authorities in Zhejiang have not given an explanation for the new policy. But analysts say Beijing is concerned about the growth of evangelical Christianity in Communist China, which is officially atheist. Estimates run from 50 million to more than 100 million Protestants and about 6 million Catholics in a country where party members number 70 million. The Zhejiang coastal city of Wenzhou, known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its religious ferment, has 1.2 million evangelicals in a population of 9 million.
The campaign in Zhejiang is notable for its scope, but also for targeting official Protestant “Three-Self” churches. These churches are legal and registered, and consider themselves loyal to the Chinese state. (Authorities have waged a less visible campaign against the proliferation of illegal “house” churches in Zhejiang.)
“For the past two years, more Three-Self churches are being targeted, so we can expect more resistance from them,” says Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer from Beijing now in residence at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
Last month the plot thickened: The government ceased tearing down crosses arbitrarily and issued a ban on all crosses atop churches through a new religious structures building code. The code stipulates that crosses be removed, reduced in size, and affixed to the side of the edifice in the same color as the building, rendering them hard to see.
The leadership of Chongyi Christian church in Hangzhou – one of the largest mega-churches in China with more than 10,000 weekly visitors – openly protested the new policy. The protest letter ran on the church website but disappeared after a week.
The letter is “important, since the Three-Self churches tend to be supportive of the government,” says Mr. Teng, who has argued religious freedom cases in China.
The Chongyi letter cites the Constitution, saying the nation is bound to “rules that respect the traditions and customs of all religions.” Efforts to remove a fixture that “for 2,000 years” has been a sign of “faith and love” on top of churches doesn’t show respect, it stated.
The letter goes on to state that building and architectural codes in cities have always been adapted to specific places and structures, and a blanket ban on all crosses goes past the legal scope of the code.
Further, knocking down crosses amounts to “excessive interference” by authorities, the letter says. The language of the new rules is “vague ... with little accuracy" … and is “likely to cause chaos in execution and religious conflicts,” it continues. To create new rules for all religious buildings but in a way that only touches Protestants and Catholics, its authors write, is prejudicial and unjust.