Wed, Jun 04, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Toppled spire points to clash between church and state in China

The government said a church violated zoning rules, but that was seen as an excuse to limit Christian influence

By Ian Johnson  /  NY Times News Service, WENZHOU, China

Illustration: Mountain People

For nearly a year, the Sanjiang Church was the pride of Wenzhou’s growing Christian population. A landmark in the fast-developing northern suburbs, its 54.8m spire rose dramatically against a rocky promontory. Wenzhou, called “China’s Jerusalem” for the churches dotting the cityscape, was known for its relaxed ties between church and state, and local officials lauded the church as a model project.

However, in late April the Chinese government ordered the church torn down, saying it violated zoning regulations. After fruitless negotiations and a failed effort by the congregation to occupy the church, on April 28 backhoes and bulldozers knocked down the walls and sent the spire toppling to the ground.

“People are stunned,” said one member of the congregation, who asked that she be identified only by her English name, Mabel, out of fear of Chinese government reprisals. “They have completely lost faith in the local religious authorities.”

This urban area of 9 million in eastern China, nestled between rugged mountains and a jagged coastline, has moved to the center of a national battle with a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) increasingly suspicious of Christianity and the Western values that the party says it represents. Since March, at least a dozen other churches across Zhejiang Province have been told to remove their crosses or have received demolition orders, a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of China’s fastest-growing religion.

The government has defended its actions, saying the churches violated zoning restrictions. However, an internal government document reviewed by the New York Times makes it clear that the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.

The nine-page provincial policy statement says the government aims to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities, but it specifies only one religion, Christianity, and one symbol, the cross.

“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” the document says. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”

The Sanjiang demolition, in particular, drew national attention because it was an officially sanctioned church, not one of the independent, underground churches that often run afoul of the government. Moreover, a central ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) played a decisive role in the destruction of this church.

The case created a backlash, even in government-controlled religious circles, with prominent theologians at government seminaries publicly criticizing its handling.

“Nothing hurts the people more than bulldozing their church,” Chen Yilu (陳逸魯), head of the government-sponsored Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the country’s most influential, said in an interview. “It was handled too aggressively.”

“The Sanjiang Church was a legal and registered congregation. I think they deserved a better outcome,” said Gao Ying (高英), dean of the official Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing.

The leveling of the Sanjiang Church came amid growing tensions, not only between Christianity and the government, but also between Christianity and other religions. It was preceded by a local petition, accusing the church of destroying the area’s feng shui, geomantic principles that underlie traditional Chinese folk religion. Others complained that churches were crowding out traditional temples, which compete for space in the hilly region.

This story has been viewed 2495 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top