After government topples crosses in China, congregations react with defiance
More than a tenth of Wenzhou's residents are Protestant Christians — some fourth-generation believers — the highest proportion of any major Chinese city, according to Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist who has studied and written a book about Christianity in Wenzhou. The high percentage is largely due to early missionary efforts and the city's relative isolation, nestled between the sea and mountains. Half the province's 4,000 churches are located here.
The city is known for its entrepreneurial vigor, and has tens of thousands of family-run workshops making shoes, toys, furniture and other products. The believers here appear to have applied that same eagerness to starting new churches, Cao said.
For years, the city's Christians had close relationships with local authorities, and many believers, ironically, are also members of the ostensibly atheist Communist Party or hold civil servant jobs, he said.
City officials even encouraged churches to build big as a way to draw attention and investment from Chinese Christians abroad, and some churches appeared to compete to build the largest sanctuaries and tallest crosses — including one that stands 63 meters (200 feet) tall.
But late last year, authorities began asking churches not to light up their crosses at night. The reason given was to help reduce carbon emissions, pastors and church members in the city say. The orders appeared to be coming from the provincial government, but were carried out by city officials.
Then in April, the local government in Yongjia county suddenly demanded that an unapproved portion of a large church be torn down — even though officials had tacitly allowed the church to build five times the approved square footage. Decades of unbridled development and onerous red tape has made it the norm to build before obtaining pages of approval stamps from myriad government agencies.
Despite protests from the congregation and supporters, demolition crews tore down the entire structure, and the hillside where it was located is now covered in tree saplings.
Since then, rooftop crosses at many churches along major roads in and around Wenzhou have been removed, and vaguely-worded notices against unspecified illegal structures have been delivered to churches in outlying areas. Cao, the scholar on Christianity, said the cross removals and demolitions reflected the occasional flexing of political muscle by authorities to show who's in control.
Pastors and church elders say government workers have told them in private that the goal is to remove the crosses. Officials have promised they will stay away from churches if the symbols are removed but have threatened those who resist with demolition.
"This is clearly discrimination against our religion and to crack down on our belief," said Wang Yunxian, a church elder in Wenzhou.
On Monday, several dozen police clashed with people defending the Salvation Christian Church in Wenzhou as police attempted to remove the church's cross, said Zheng Changye, a 36-year-old member of another church who said he had rushed over to the scene. He said three people were seriously injured and six detained for questioning. In the end, the police left without having taken the cross down, he said. City police contacted Friday said they didn't know about the confrontation.
Yang, the Purdue professor, said it was difficult to imagine what sort of building codes the crosses would violate.
"The only reason I can think of is that the Zhejiang authorities intend to humiliate Christians by taking down the symbol sacred to them," he said. The campaign could be tacitly approved by Beijing, which has not interfered publicly, or it might merely be a political gamble by the provincial leadership to win praises, he said.
A senior Zhejiang government official insisted that authorities weren't targeting churches, "but only structures in violation of codes.
"Those with ulterior motives are singling out churches, but we also have torn down temples and nunneries, and we have strictly followed the law in removing illegal structures," said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn't permitted to speak on the record to the media.
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