Resistance is growing among China’s expanding Christian community to a government campaign to remove crosses from churches in a wealthy coastal province.
[Reposted from The New York Times | Ian Johnson | August 10, 2015]
The campaign initially centered on one church, which was torn down last year after officials accused it of having violated zoning restrictions on height and size. Then the campaign was broadened to include crosses atop buildings. Local church members now say they have been told that free-standing crucifixes are being taken down from all Protestant and Roman Catholic churches across Zhejiang Province.
That has caused sometimes spectacular protests, with believers climbing spires to shield the crosses, as well as creative efforts to bypass the regulations. Some congregations have been building small crosses to hang outside the windows of members’ homes or from their car mirrors.
More surprising has been the growing boldness of government-approved churches. About half of the estimated 60 million Christians in China attend churches approved by the government. Last year, two prominent theologians at government seminaries spoke out against the campaign. Now, public appeals have added to the opposition.
An open letter, signed by the bishop of Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang Province, and 26 priests, said, “Recently the situation has intensified.” The government, they said, “has stopped using the pretext of ‘demolishing illegal structures’ and is rushing to take down the crosses of every single church.”
“As Chinese citizens, we yearn for deeper and more comprehensive democracy and the rule of law,” the letter said.
Another letter, from the provincial branch of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Catholic Educational Administration Committee, called for an immediate end to the cross-removal campaign. It said that the official bodies’ credibility was being damaged by the campaign because they were not able to stop it.
The provincial branch of the government Protestant association, the China Christian Council, also objected to the campaign. It said in a letter that 1,200 crosses had been removed over the past year and a half, “severely hurting the feelings of the province’s more than two million believers.”
“It completely violates the party’s and the nation’s ideology and spirit of ‘ruling the country according to laws,’ and ‘ruling the country according to the constitution,’ ” said the letter, which was addressed to local religious affairs officials and copied to leaders in Beijing.
Analysts said the public appeals by government-approved religious leaders, all written in July, were important.
“It’s an action out of despair,” said Fredrik Fallman, a Swedish scholar who has written extensively on Christianity in China. “When even the official church reacts in that way, it’s significant.”
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.
Last year, numerous protests seemed to cause the government to back down. The number of cross removals slowed. Then in May, the Zhejiang provincial government declared that churches could not have free-standing crosses atop spires. In a 36-page set of directives, the government said crosses had to be set into the facade of the church, and could be no more than 10 percent of the building’s height.
There were some indications over the weekend that the campaign might be slowing, with members of a congregation in Cangnan County south of Wenzhou saying their parish had received a notice that the campaign would stop.
Some people attributed this to the upcoming military parades for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Others noted that the campaign had also slowed last year. One church member said that now that the government has set a benchmark — no free-standing spires — it would slowly grind on until all the spires in Zhejiang were removed.