The government-approved church had reached a compromise April 7 with local authorities to save the building, which had been built too large. However, on Monday reports emerged from China that the massive worship building is being completely demolished.
According to UCA News: an independent Catholic news service that focuses on Asia:
“Roads leading to the Sanjiang Church were blocked this morning (April 28). Armed police and officers from the Special Task Force were dispatched to the district,” said a Protestant source who asked not to be named.
The source added that security forces have also made several arrests, “At least five Sanjiang Church leaders as well as Xu Kede, a pastor at the nearby Tengqiao Church who visited Sanjiang over the weekend, have now been detained,” the source said.
Located in Wenzhou, a prosperous city on China’s southeastern coast and one of the most heavily Christianized regions of China, the Sanjiang Church obtained permission to build a worship space on 20,000 square feet, or about half an acre.
The congregation instead built a church and an annex on 100,000 square feet, or nearly 3 acres. Local authorities nonetheless called the Gothicesque structure a “model project.”
In late 2013, the Zhejiang Province Communist Party Secretary, Xia Baolong, toured the city and was reported to take offense at the large cross atop the church, looming over the city’s commercial district.
“The local government was afraid and initially only asked the church to take the cross down,” said a China coordinator for Open Doors International, a global charity that provides aid to Christians who are pressured because of their faith. “When the Christians refused, the authorities threatened to demolish the entire church building.”
Church members began to take up watch at the church, in small numbers at first. On April 3, authorities served a final notice that the church would be demolished after 15 days, and the crowds mushroomed:
On April 7, the two sides appeared to reach a compromise: The church would remove two levels of a seven-storey annex building. The church, and its cross, would stay — though government officials would later say the cross was expected to be removed.
Contacted on April 28, the Open Doors coordinator for China said the negotiated settlement began to fall apart when wrecking crews stripped four floors off the annex, not the agreed-upon two.
“The exact reason was unknown to us,” the China coordinator said. “What became clear very soon, was that both the government and the church are not handling this case very well. This led to the local government losing even more face.
“Now it seems the entire building has been destroyed and several arrests have been made. The most likely reason is that local officials are afraid of being seen as weak. Besides, there are more churches on the list of illegal constructions. Unfortunately for the Sanjiang congregation, the authorities couldn’t let them get away with this. It is a shame that this beautiful building was destroyed. At the same time, we received reports that two smaller churches in the same province were also demolished. The regional and local government are enforcing the policy to tackle illegal constructions.”
It’s hard to know exactly what triggered this apparent reversal. I can think of four possibilities, all plausible, and not necessarily mutually exclusive:
1. The agreement from a few weeks ago was just a stall tactic on the part of the local officials to get the spotlight turned off of them; they never intended to abide by it.
2.The worldwide publicity a few weeks ago caused the local officials to lose so much face that they felt they must take action to avoid appearing weak. (Local officials are nothing, if not petty.)
3. The local officials have a quota of how many illegally built structures they are supposed to “rectify,” and this helps meet that quota.
4. The local officials really are worried about the explosive growth of Christianity in Zhejiang.
Again, these possibilities are all plausible and not mutually exclusive; in other words the answer to the question of “what in the world is going on?” is most likely “all of the above.”
The government’s position
The Beijing-based Global Times news service, which is run under the auspices of the government-controlled People’s Daily, posted a report April 29 that shed some light, but little clarity, on why the April 7 agreement was set aside:
[T]here was no planning approval before the land was rezoned from agricultural to urban, a media officer surnamed Shan from Yongjia government told the Global Times Monday.
. . . They thought they had reached a deal with the local government to save the church in return for demolishing the top two floors of an administrative building.
“There was a deal, which was reasonable but unfortunately illegal,” said Shan. The entire complex was demolished to show they were treating everyone equally, as all illegal constructions should be demolished or rebuilt, he said.
The deal was signed on April 7 and the church was given two weeks to demolish the outer buildings and take down the church cross, which exceeded the limit on building height. But they did not do that within the agreed time, according to a government press release.
In a report posted Tuesday, April 29, The New York Times conveyed another official explanation of the demolition:
Zhejiang Daily, the official newspaper of the provincial government, portrayed the demolition of the Sanjiang Church as an administrative matter that had to be carried out to ensure fair application of the law. In a front-page story on Tuesday, it said that the church was built more than four times larger than the 1,881 square meters [20,246 square feet] originally permitted. “The Yongjia County government has, according to the law, begun to forcibly demolish this illegal structure,” the newspaper said.
The Telegraph’s Tom Phillips reported that the government may have bigger plans than Sanjiang:
Church members accused Communist leaders in Zhejiang province of ordering an anti-church crackdown and claimed there were plans to completely or partially demolish at least 10 places of worship.
Officials rejected those accusations, alleging the church had violated building codes.
China Aid, a Texas-based religious-freedom nonprofit, reported Monday, April 28, that Baiquan Church in the city of Zhoushan was demolished, and three others “rectified,” on April 24.