Se­vere church crack­down in China draws back­lash

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY DIDI TANG

About a dozen Catholics wept and sang hymns out­side their church as a man climbed to the top of the build­ing and sliced off its steel cross with a cut­ting torch. It top­pled with a thud.

“Aren’t you ashamed of what you have done?” a teary woman yelled at the more than 100 se­cu­rity guards, who along with po­lice and gov­ern­ment work­ers kept the parish­ioners of Lower Dafei Catholic Church from pro­tect­ing the sym­bol of their faith. The guards, who stood with shields and ba­tons in the sun for nearly two hours, looked in­dif­fer­ent.

“Doesn’t the gov­ern­ment give us the right to re­li­gious free­dom? Why are they tak­ing down our sym­bol with­out any ex­pla­na­tion?” another parish­ioner said hours ear­lier, as gov­ern­ment work­ers ar­rived to build the scaf­fold­ing to reach the cross.

“We have vi­o­lated no law. We do not op­pose the gov­ern­ment,” said the parish­ioner, who gave his name only as Chen for fear of re­tal­i­a­tion from author­i­ties. “We have been good, law-abid­ing cit­i­zens.”

Author­i­ties in south­east­ern Zhe­jiang province are be­lieved to be un­der a two-month dead­line to re­move crosses from the spires, vaults, roofs and wall arches of the 4,000 or so churches that dot the land­scape of this eco­nom­i­cally thriv­ing re­gion.

In a rare move, even China’s semiof­fi­cial Chris­tian as­so­ci­a­tions — which are sup­posed to en­sure the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party’s con­trol over Protes­tant and Catholic groups — have de­nounced the cam­paign as un­con­sti­tu­tional and hu­mil­i­at­ing. They have warned that it could risk turn­ing the faith­ful into en­e­mies of the party.

The cam­paign is be­lieved to be the will of Pres­i­dent and Com­mu­nist Party leader Xi Jin­ping, whose ad­min­is­tra­tion has launched the most se­vere crack­down in decades on so­cial forces that might chal­lenge the mo­nop­oly of the party’s rule.

But Yang Feng­gang, an ex­pert on China’s re­li­gions at Pur­due Univer­sity, said the party may have mis­cal­cu­lated and could be cre­at­ing the very in­sta­bil­ity it is try­ing to avoid.

“The crack­down has alien­ated the Chris­tians in China, who are oth­er­wise law-abid­ing cit­i­zens,” Yang said.

He said the cam­paign to as­sert state power over of­fi­cially sanc­tioned churches has been or­dered by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and is likely be­ing car­ried out as a kind of experiment in Zhe­jiang, where the pro­vin­cial party chief, Xia Bao­long, is a trusted ally of Xi.

The mas­sive cam­paign comes one year af­ter the pro­vin­cial lead­er­ship or­dered the raz­ing of sev­eral churches and hun­dreds of rooftop crosses deemed to be illegal struc­tures. This sum­mer, Zhe­jiang banned rooftop crosses al­to­gether. De­spite crit­i­cism that the new rule vi­o­lates China’s con­sti­tu­tional right of re­li­gious free­dom, lo­cal en­forcers are send­ing de­mo­li­tion crews to vir­tu­ally all the province’s churches.

They have met with re­sis­tance. Parish­ioners have kept vig­ils and tried to block en­trances to church grounds with cargo trucks, and many churches have re-erected crosses in de­fi­ance.

Voices Hushed

Since Xi came into power in late 2012, Bei­jing has hushed voices crit­i­cal of its poli­cies and prac­tices in China’s so­cial media, locked up mem­bers of the New Cit­i­zens Move­ment who had called for greater gov­ern­ment ac­count­abil­ity, and, most re­cently, rounded up rights lawyers who in­sist China’s law must be fol­lowed to the let­ter and ap­plied equally to the peo­ple and the state.

“The author­i­ties are es­pe­cially wor­ried that those with re­li­gious be­liefs have a strong sense of iden­tity and be­long­ing, which can trans­late into huge so­cial forces,” said Zhao Chu, an in­de­pen­dent com­men­ta­tor.

In tar­get­ing Chris­tians, the party is go­ing af­ter a group pos­si­bly big- ger than it­self. Yang said Chris­tians prob­a­bly num­ber close to 100 mil­lion af­ter more than three decades of rapid growth, though of­fi­cial fig­ures are much lower. The Com­mu­nist Party has nearly 88 mil­lion mem­bers.

In a trou­bling sign for the party, a siz­able por­tion of its nom­i­nally athe­ist mem­ber­ship holds Chris­tian, Bud­dhist, Mus­lim or other be­liefs. The party is wor­ried that re­li­gion — es­pe­cially ver­sions of Chris­tian­ity rooted in the West — could sub­vert its rule.

The party tried to wipe out re­li­gion al­to­gether dur­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal fer­vor of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion of the 1960s and 1970s, but later re­stored the right to wor­ship. In en­su­ing decades, re­li­gious par­tic­i­pa­tion has grown as peo­ple seek to fill a spir­i­tual void.

Still, Bei­jing re­tains tight con­trols over all re­li­gious groups, re­quir­ing them to register with the state or be la­beled illegal. It claims the ex­clu­sive right to ap­point Catholic bish­ops within China, in­stead of the Vat­i­can.

In the western re­gions of Ti­bet and Xin­jiang, where Bud­dhist and Is­lamic be­liefs min­gle with eth­nic iden­ti­ties, the gov­ern­ment also has sought to curb some of the vis­i­ble sym­bols of faith, in­clud­ing beards and veils, and in­stalled sur­veil­lance cam­eras in and around monas­ter­ies and mosques.

The rules Zhe­jiang adopted in early July say crosses should be wholly af­fixed to a build­ing fa­cade and be no more than one-tenth of the fa­cade’s height. No ra­tio­nale has been pro­vided, and the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment did not re­spond to an As­so­ci­ated Press re­quest for an in­ter­view.

The Catholic Pa­tri­otic As­so­ci­a­tion of Zhe­jiang has said it is illegal to re­move crosses from prop­erly reg­is­tered churches. The Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion of Zhe­jiang warned the act has caused an­i­mos­ity to­ward the rul­ing party. Both groups called for an im­me­di­ate halt.

Yang said the rare open op­po­si­tion from the gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned Chris­tian as­so­ci­a­tions, which serve as li­aisons be­tween the author­i­ties and rank-and-file Chris­tians, means the author­i­ties could lose this im­por­tant con­duit. “Now this bridge has been burned,” he said.

Emo­tions Pal­pa­ble

Fear, frus­tra­tion and fury are prob­a­bly most pal­pa­ble in the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Wen­zhou, tucked be­tween China’s eastern coast­line and rugged moun­tain ranges. With its 2,000 or so churches, Wen­zhou, home to 9 mil­lion peo­ple, is as well-known as a bas­tion of Chris­tian­ity as it is for its gritty entrepreneurship.

Al­most ev­ery town­ship has its own claim to a line of prod­ucts — whether it be but­tons, shoe soles, pet prod­ucts or chil­dren’s toys. Al­most ev­ery vil­lage has a church or two, join­ing the land­scape of rice pad­dies, farm­houses and fac­to­ries.

Zhu Libin, pres­i­dent of the Wen­zhou Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion, is torn be­tween fel­low Chris­tians, who want him to speak on their be­half, and lo­cal author­i­ties, who want him to per­suade churches to com­ply.

“As a Chris­tian, I want to see the cross lifted as high as pos­si­ble, but as a citizen of China, I have to fol­low the rule when asked,” he said in an in­ter­view at his down­town Wen­zhou of­fice.

When asked to com­ment on the con­tin­u­ing cross re­movals, he stood up and walked out. Mo­ments later, he re­turned but re­fused to an­swer.

Zhu Weifang, an of­fi­cially ap­pointed bishop, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed, but he and two dozen other Catholic of­fi­cials and priests signed a strongly worded let­ter call­ing the new rules un­law­ful.

“The more (author­i­ties) sup­press the call for jus­tice, the more it shows they are faced with se­vere so­cial cri­sis, that they have lit­tle con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to rule, and that they are in­com­pe­tent in deal­ing with is­sues,” said the let­ter, which urges parish­ioners to “fight by law of rea­son to de­fend our very ba­sic right to our re­li­gion.”

In vil­lage churches, Protes­tants and Catholics are de­fy­ing or­ders to re­move crosses on their own and keep­ing around-the-clock vig­ils in slim hopes of hold­ing off de­mo­li­tion crews. Many have de­fi­antly reerected the crosses.

Tears welled in the eyes of Tu Shouzhe when he re­called how author­i­ties forcibly re­moved the cross from his Protes­tant church in the vil­lage of Muyang on a hot, hu­mid sum­mer af­ter­noon.

“It was a sur­prise at­tack. We did not let them in, but they broke in by cut­ting off the lock. We de­manded pa­per­work, but they showed us none. They cor­doned us away from the church,” Tu said. “They had 60-70 peo­ple. We had just about a dozen or so. Ev­ery­one was cry­ing. Our hearts ached. We felt pow­er­less to re­sist, and only prayed and sang hymns.”

In the Zhe­jiang


of Jin­hua, two pas­tors from the of­fi­cial Jin­hua City Chris­tian Church have been de­tained on sus­pi­cion of cor­rup­tion af­ter the two re­fused to re­move the rooftop cross from a newly-built sanc­tu­ary, lawyer Liu Weiguo said Wed­nes­day.

In Lower Dafei Vil­lage, the de­mo­li­tion crew de­scended one morn­ing last week, but soon re­al­ized it could not scale the spire to get to the cross. They re­turned in the af­ter­noon with poles for scaf­fold­ing and a cut­ting torch. Of­fi­cials barred a pho­tog­ra­pher and video­jour­nal­ist from the AP from doc­u­ment­ing the de­mo­li­tion, but another re­porter was present, ap­par­ently the first news media to cap­ture im­ages of such a cross re­moval.

One parish­ioner sat in the nar­row en­trance to the church grounds, try­ing to block the in­trud­ers, but was or­dered to leave. He never spoke a word but kept his eyes on the cross and prayed silently.

As sev­eral men built the scaf­fold­ing, parish­ioners’ tear­ful singing echoed over the church grounds: “He uses the love of the cross, the cross, to con­quer the man.”


(Above) In this July 29 photo, lay leader Tu Shouzhe stands on his Protes­tant church’s roof hours af­ter Chi­nese gov­ern­ment work­ers came and cut down the build­ing’s cross, at right, in Muyang Vil­lage in Pingyang County in eastern China’s Zhe­jiang province. (Right) In this July 30 photo, parish­ioners of Lower Dafei Catholic Church, left, block the church’s en­trance as Chi­nese gov­ern­ment work­ers wait to en­ter to cut down the build­ing’s cross in Lower Dafei Vil­lage in Yongjia County, Zhe­jiang province.


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