Fears for China's churches as Christianity rises

Wenzhou - It is impossible to visit Wenzhou, a bustling port city known as the Jerusalem of the East, without noticing the crosses.

Bright red and in some cases taller than houses, they thrust into the sky from roof tops, domes and spires – a constant reminder of Christianity’s rapid spread in this officially atheist nation.

Recently, however, the crosses appear to have become too visible for Beijing’s liking.

On Monday night excavators laid waste to one of the city’s largest places of worship, the state-sanctioned Sanjiang church, amid accusations that the Communist Party was preparing to launch a nationwide assault against Christianity.

At least 10 churches here in Zhejiang province have been ordered to remove their eye-catching red crosses or are facing partial or total demolition, activists claim. Already this month two churches, one Catholic, one Protestant, have been razed.

Communist Party officials insist the demolitions are a matter of planning permission not religious persecution.

Yet whatever the truth, the highly symbolic destruction of Sanjiang, a state-approved congregation, has underlined escalating tensions between an increasing large and assertive Church and a Communist Party that appears less and less tolerant of those groups it sees as a threat to its power.

Exactly 25 years ago, hawks and doves within the Party leadership debated how to deal with mass protests that had broken out in Tiananmen Square and hundreds of other Chinese cities.

Some, like Zhao Ziyang, China's reform-minded General Secretary, advocated a conciliatory approach, noting that the students’ calls for an end to corruption were in line with the party's own pledges. Others pushed for an iron-fisted response, claiming the protests had been whipped up by hostile foreign forces intent on toppling the Party.

“This clearly is a planned, organised conspiracy,” said Li Ximing, Beijing's conservative mayor, according to leaked documents published in the Tiananmen papers.

A quarter of a century on from those debates - eventually and fatefully won by the hardliners - the Party appears similarly split over religion and Christianity in particular.

Some leaders are said to share Prime Minister David Cameron's newfound enthusiasm for the faith as a weapon against spiritual and moral collapse. But as with the 1989 protests, many others view Christianity as a “hostile” and “foreign” danger that needs to be stamped out.

Foreign missionaries were forced from China following the Communist takeover in 1949 and the Party’s deep suspicion of proselytising outsiders appears to have changed little since then.

A high-level government directive, leaked in late 2012, ordered universities chiefs to guard against a gang of “US-led Western countries” which were "infiltrating" Chinese campuses and “using religion to carry out their political plot to westernise and divide China”.

China's Protestant and Catholic communities – now thought to number anywhere between 25 and 100 million people - enjoy incomparably more freedom than during the three decades that followed Chairman Mao’s 1949 Revolution.

But the bar was set very low by years of destruction and persecution in which pastors and priests were routinely beaten, thrown into jail and even tortured as their places of worship were closed or ransacked.

Even today, the only legal way to worship legally is inside state-controlled churches run by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM) or the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). Chinese citizens are forbidden from attending foreign-run churches where overseas priests might preach inconvenient sections of the Bible.

Thaddeus Ma Daqin, a Catholic bishop in Shanghai, has effectively been under house arrest since he spoke out against the Party’s stranglehold on religion in 2012. Earlier this month a government official accused the bishop of acting “under the influence of foreigners”.

The significance of this week’s church demolition remains unclear, with observers divided on whether it was the result of a regional grudge against Christianity or a direct order from Beijing.

However, some within the Christian community fear Beijing is gearing up for a nationwide anti-church campaign designed to halt the advance of what they view as troublesome “foreign” movement.

Young Chinese often saw Christianity as "very fresh, modern and attractive” but many senior Communists regarded it as “a sickness” that posed a potentially fatal threat to the Party's health, said one underground “house church” leader.

As congregations swell - a leading expert recently predicted China would become the world's biggest Christian congregation by 2030 - and the profile and influence of churchgoers changes with the conversion of younger, more educated urban believers, so too do these fears.

Fenggang Yang, the head of Purdue University’s Centre on Religion and Chinese Society, said Chinese Christians would face growing pressure from Beijing in the coming decade, likening the situation to the Roman Empire's Great Persecution of Christians in the 10 years leading up to the AD313 Edict of Milan.

That may be putting it too strongly, but the destruction of Sanjiang church has done nothing to improve the Communist Party’s long-strained relations with the Church.

There was now an urgent need for greater dialogue between churches and the government, the underground leader argued. “We have to build up trust. The mistrust is a very, very big issue.”

At Wenzhou’s Sanjiang church any trust was obliterated this week as government demolition teams took just hours to level a place of worship that had taken years of work and millions of pounds to build.

After being spied on and harassed by local officials and police who had sought to hide the demolition from the public eye, congregants woke up on Tuesday morning to find their church reduced to a heap of rubble.

“They should respect our faith,” said one congregant. “Politics is so complicated, especially in China. We can saying nothing more.”