As Chinese President Xi Jinping dines tonight at the White House, a campaign against Protestant Christians in China's coastal Zhejiang province has taken a new turn.
For the past 20 months, authorities have removed crosses from some 1,300 churches using cranes and hacksaws. Now they are arresting local evangelical leaders showing opposition and infiltrating churches in a show of Communist Party authority, numerous sources say.
Some 15 to 18 pastors and lawyers in the city of Wenzhou, known as China’s “little Jerusalem” for its 1.2 million Christians out of a population of nine million, have been held in secret since late August. Among those is a prominent Christian lawyer, Zhang Kai, who disappeared a day before an Aug. 25 meeting with President Obama’s religious freedom envoy, David Saperstein. He left Aug. 28 describing the “precariousness of religious life in China."
Coming just ahead of President Xi's first state visit, the treatment of Amb. Saperstein is viewed by human rights activists as a warning to Mr. Obama not to meddle in China internal affairs. The crackdown on Christians is part of a broader campaign in China to muzzle civil society and deter any opposition to the party's rule.
While Obama is expected to raise human rights at today's summit in Washington, it's unclear whether the specific treatment of Christians in Zhejiang will be mentioned. White House officials have said China's draft legislation that curbs the activities of international and Chinese NGOs would be raised.
"It is paramount the administration raise Christianity to show China this is not just a few international media organizations interested, but that religious freedom is a value to the American public," says Carsten Vala, an authority on churches in China at Loyola University in Maryland.
Christianity is growing rapidly in China. Evangelicals, estimated at between 60 and 90 million, are now the largest single civil society group, and their profile is shifting from rural and elderly to young and urban.
In Zhejiang, along with new arrests of church organizers, special police have begun monitoring Sunday sermons and warned pastors not to speak of the anti-cross campaign. In some cases police have walked through church services, snatching small red crosses held in protest by worshipers.
Bob Fu, head of the human rights monitor ChinaAid, says the new official tactic, coming after a summer of intensifying and sometimes violent standoffs between police and evangelicals, is “more subtle than destroying churches and crosses. But the arrest of pastors and organizers seems to hit believers harder.”
Attacks on sanctioned churches
The arrest of Mr. Zhang, who represents around 100 churches in Wenzhou, coincided with an August round-up of nearly 240 human-rights lawyers across China.
One difference in Zhejiang is that instead of the usual attack on illegal Chinese “house churches,” authorities have attacked officially sanctioned and approved “Three-Self Patriotic” churches.
In some cases, the churches targeted had previously been called “model churches” by provincial authorities responsible for religious affairs. This has roiled many Chinese faithful that have considered themselves loyal and their churches to be legal and protected.
The campaign titled “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” was launched in late 2013. During its first year some 200 crosses and a prominent church in Wenzhou were taken down. But by July the crackdown had reached a crescendo. A change in Zhejian’s building code specifically targeted crosses and allowed them to appear only affixed to church facades.
By late July, crosses had been removed from some 1,300 of the 4,000 churches in the province. In many cases evangelicals began to openly resist and reattached the cross once the authorities left.
Police began to take their gloves off, detaining and interrogating protesters. On Aug. 5, six women evangelicals were beaten and hospitalized.
Circulation of protest letters
One development among the evangelicals is the circulation of samizdat-style letters, declarations, and statements worked out by churches – a bold departure in authoritarian China. And for the first time, official Protestant and Catholic churches joined forces to publicly oppose government policy.
The Chongyi church in Hangzhou, one of the largest in China, sent a letter signed by head pastor Joseph Gu, appealing to China’s constitution and saying the nation was bound to “rules that respect the traditions and customs of all religions.” It said that efforts to remove crosses that are a sign of "faith and love" were disrespectful.
Like many, one church in Wenzhou formulated a 10-point statement whose fourth point called for “non-violent resistance” and whose sixth point stated that should resistance be futile, “the church should hire lawyers."
One evangelical lawyer in Zhejiang contacted by The Christian Science Monitor said he had recently been fired from his job. He said he was not seeking revenge but instead felt that “more and more believers see the government’s actions and behavior as illegal. We are behaving. It is the government that is not behaving. We are more sure of this.”