SHUITOU, China — Along the valleys and mountains hugging the East China Sea, a Chinese government campaign to remove crosses from church spires has left the countryside looking as if a typhoon had raged down the coast, decapitating buildings at random.
In the town of Shuitou, workers used blowtorches to cut a 10-foot-high cross off the 120-foot steeple of the Salvation Church. It now lies in the churchyard, wrapped in a red shroud.
About 10 miles to the east, in Mabu township, riot police officers blocked parishioners from entering the grounds of the Dachang Church while workers erected scaffolding and sawed off the cross. In the nearby villages of Ximei, Aojiang, Shanmen and Tengqiao, crosses now lie toppled on rooftops or in yards, or buried like corpses.
On a four-day journey through this lush swath of China’s Zhejiang Province, I spoke with residents who described in new detail the breathtaking scale of an effort to remove Christianity’s most potent symbol from public view. Over the past two years, officials and residents said, the authorities have torn down crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches, sometimes after violent clashes with worshipers trying to stop them.
“It’s been very difficult to deal with,” said one church elder in Shuitou, who like others asked for anonymity in fear of retaliation by the authorities. “We can only get on our knees and pray.”
The campaign has been limited to Zhejiang Province, home to one of China’s largest and most vibrant Christian populations. But people familiar with the government’s deliberations say the removal of crosses here has set the stage for a new, nationwide effort to more strictly regulate spiritual life in China, reflecting the tighter control of society favored by President Xi Jinping.
In a major speech on religious policy last month, Mr. Xi urged the ruling Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and he warned that religions in China must “Sinicize,” or become Chinese. The instructions reflect the government’s longstanding fear that Christianity could undermine the party’s authority. Many human rights lawyers in China are Christians, and many dissidents have said they are influenced by the idea that rights are God-given.
In recent decades, the party had tolerated a religious renaissance in China, allowing most Chinese to worship as they chose and even encouraging the construction of churches, mosques and temples, despite regular crackdowns on unregistered congregations and banned spiritual groups such as Falun Gong.
Hundreds of millions of people have embraced the nation’s major faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity. There are now about 60 million Christians in China. Many attend churches registered with the government, but at least half worship in unregistered churches, often with local authorities looking the other way.
But Mr. Xi’s decision to convene a “religious affairs work conference” last month — the first such leadership meeting in 15 years — suggested that he was unhappy with some of these policies. People familiar with the party’s discussions say it intends to apply some lessons from the campaign in Zhejiang to rein in religious groups across the country.
While the government is unlikely to begin tearing down crosses across China, the sources say, local authorities are expected to begin scrutinizing the finances and foreign ties of churches and other spiritual institutions as part of an effort to limit the influence of religions the party considers a threat, especially Christianity.
“What has been happening in Zhejiang is a test,” said Fan Yafeng, an independent legal scholar in Beijing. “If the government views it as a success, it will be expanded.”
Broadening the campaign to regulate religion could backfire on Mr. Xi, with worshipers abandoning government-run churches in favor of underground congregations, which typically meet unobtrusively in office buildings or homes. It could also antagonize many of the urban, white-collar professionals who have embraced Christianity.
“Treating it as a foreign religion could alienate these people,” said Fredrik Fallman, a scholar who studies Chinese Christianity at the University of Goteborg in Sweden. “But this might also be the purpose — to be a warning.”
Set in a valley 10 miles from the coast, Shuitou is a small market town of streaked-concrete housing blocks and pell-mell streets. Most of its traditional places of worship — Buddhist, Taoist and ancestral shrines for deceased relatives — are small structures, sometimes built on the side of a mountain and usually hidden from view.
But since the 1980s, 14 churches in Shuitou have been financed with donations from local entrepreneurs eager to show off their newfound prosperity and hard-won faith. The naves are several stories tall, and the spires rise more than 100 feet.
Until recently, most were topped with bright red crosses. But crosses have been removed from half the churches in Shuitou, with orders coming every month for more to come down. Many worshipers interviewed said they feared an era was coming to end.
“For years, we had no problems with the authorities,” a local worshiper said. “Our churches were welcomed by the government.”
Continue reading the main story
Pastor in China Who Resisted Cross Removal Gets 14 Years in Prison FEB. 26, 2016
Hong Kong Christian Groups Feel New Scrutiny From Mainland AUG. 26, 2015
Chinese Christians Resist Government Plan to Remove Crosses AUG. 10, 2015
Chinese Province Issues Draft Regulation on Church Crosses MAY 8, 2015
China Chafes at Christianity’s Growth MAY 29, 2014
The campaign began in 2014, when the government abruptly announced plans to demolish a church in the neighboring city of Wenzhou, saying it had not received the proper building permits. Then the government began issuing orders for churches across the province to remove their crosses.
The Salvation Church, a complex with three spires atop a three-story congregation hall, offices and a parking lot, quickly became a center of resistance. Hundreds of parishioners encircled the church to protect the cross, facing off against hundreds of riot police officers.
In one confrontation, about 50 church members were injured. Pictures of bruised and beaten Christians flooded social media and the websites of overseas Christian advocacy groups.
According to parishioners, the government put pressure on the most active members of the congregation. Some businessmen say their partners were pressured into canceling contracts with them. Others were told by their employers that they would lose their jobs if they continued to participate in protests.
After the church in Wenzhou was demolished, the Salvation Church gave in and agreed to take down its cross.
The government said that it was enforcing building codes and that all structures had been affected, not just churches. But documents reviewed by The New York Times show that provincial officials were worried that churches had begun to dominate the region’s skyline.
The crosses have come down in waves, with at least 1,200 removed as of last summer, according to people working for government-run churches. Many local residents estimate the figure is now close to 1,700.
“It was quiet late last year,” one local Christian said, “but the government is now making it clear that all of the crosses will go.”
As the authorities pressed the campaign, prominent Protestant and Catholic leaders across China, including senior figures in the government’s religious affairs bureaucracy, spoke out against it in sermons and on social media.
One of them was Gu Yuese, the pastor of one of the biggest churches in the Chinese-speaking world, the Chongyi Church in the provincial capital of Hangzhou. As one of the best-known Protestant leaders in China, Mr. Gu was influential, and his criticism resonated beyond the region.
“These actions are a flagrant violation of the policy of religious freedom that the party and the government have been implementing and continuously perfecting for more than 60 years,” he wrote in a statement released on official government letterhead.
Then he was silenced. In January, the police detained Mr. Gu and charged him with misusing church funds. A few days later, another pastor in Zhejiang who had also spoken out was detained on similar charges.
“It’s a method to make us pay attention,” said the pastor of a government-run church in Wenzhou. “None of us have financial training, so if you send in an accountant, they will probably find something wrong.”
Several clergy members in the region said they were under pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist Party. Some churches, for example, have begun extolling Mr. Xi’s campaign to promote “core socialist values” — a slogan meant to offer a secular belief system that bolsters the party’s legitimacy.
Other churches have begun displaying their building permits, implicitly endorsing the government’s authority to approve or reject church construction, including crosses.
“We have to show that we are loyal Christians,” said an employee of the historic Chengxi Church in Wenzhou, “or else we could face trouble.”
In February, a prominent lawyer was shown on state television confessing to having colluded with foreign forces, especially American organizations, to stir up local Christians. The lawyer, Zhang Kai, had been in Zhejiang providing legal advice to churches that opposed the removal of their crosses.
Unregistered churches appear vulnerable, too. In December, the police detained several members of the unregistered Living Stone church in southern China’s Guizhou Province after they refused to join a government-run Protestant church. The pastor was later arrested on charges of “divulging state secrets.”
“It’s easy for them to fabricate a crime and accuse you,” said the pastor of a large unregistered church in Wenzhou. “We have to be very careful.”
Many worshipers in Shuitou are eager to keep their heads low, in hopes that the storm will blow over.
One Sunday last month, about 300 people attended services at the Salvation Church, women sitting on the left side and men on the right — a reflection of traditional views toward worship. In the front of the church, above a big red cross, were six big characters that read: “Holiness to the Lord.”
Most of the people there were in their 50s or 60s, in part because many of the younger worshipers were boycotting Sunday services to protest the church’s decision to comply with the government’s order to remove the cross.
They have begun attending services on Thursdays instead, to mark the day of the week the cross came down. They used to participate in the church’s Bible study groups, but now study independently. Some wonder if they and others may stop worshiping in registered churches entirely and go underground.
A senior church leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he and others had agreed to take down the cross because they feared the church would be demolished if they did not. People were on the verge of losing their jobs, he added, and church elders felt they had no choice but to call on parishioners to give in.
“More than three decades ago, we didn’t even have a church,” he said. “Persecution in church history has never stopped. All we can do is pray.”