Over the last two years, Chinese government officials have torn down over 1,200 crosses from churches in the province of Zhejiang. One megachurch and a few smaller church buildings have also been demolished.
Beginning in late 2013, the Zhejiang authorities launched a campaign called “Three rectifications and one demolition” that targeted the increasing number of illegally constructed buildings. Unfortunately, many church buildings, such as the Sanjiang Church, were not in full compliance with the rules and restrictions of their building permits.
The Sanjiang Church had received permission to build a church on 20,000 square feet, about half an acre of property. The congregation instead built a church covering 100,000 square feet, nearly three acres. Initially, local authorities only asked the church to remove their cross. When the believers refused, the local government threatened to demolish the building. Church members guarded their building day and night. International press coverage raised the stakes for the local government officials, who were losing face during this standoff. In April 2014, they decided to destroy the entire church.
Since then, the campaign to remove crosses from church buildings has continued. In May 2015, new regulations were implemented which prescribe that crosses should not be bigger than one tenth of the height of the building’s façade and should be mounted on the building, not displayed on top of it.
Believers in China are questioning is whether or not this should be considered persecution. Though Zhejiang officials have targeted churches, a smaller number of Buddhist temples have experienced similar government crackdowns. Most churches that have fallen victim to scrutiny are state sanctioned churches that violated their building permits. However, it should be noted that the government officials who are responsible for the removal of crosses also failed to follow the correct legal protocols.
At the same time, some Christians fear that the Chinese central government is testing how Christians in Zhejiang respond to this pressure. They are concerned that this is an early stage of a new nationwide wave of persecution against Christians. Other Christians disagree. While it’s true that a small number of house churches have been closed down recently in some locations, most church leaders outside Zhejiang are not reporting any difference in government attitude towards them. Meetings and gatherings for training have continued as usual. Current evidence does not point to an increase in persecution on a national level.
In a private meeting between central government officials and twenty pastors of unregistered churches, officials told the pastors that the central government had nothing to do with the “anti-cross campaign” in Zhejiang province. This could well be true since there’s often a disconnect between what the central Chinese administration wants and what regional and local authorities choose to implement. Struggles among officials within the Chinese government also factor into the disconnect especially since President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is in full swing.
China’s future direction on religious freedom remains unclear. Recent events don’t necessarily indicate a regression of religious freedom. What is clear is that China’s main priority is social stability. Disruptive cults such as the Almighty God Cult (formerly known as Eastern Lightning) are responsible for destroying the lives of many individuals and families. Given China’s long history of religious groups militarizing and posing a threat to the regime, the need for social stability has been a central feature of religious policy since dynastic times.
Under President Xi Jinping, this emphasis on social stability has taken on a new intensity. One example is the way Xi deals with human rights lawyers. He has said that he will tolerate no dissenting voices. Lawyers who have spoken out publicly about people or groups the regime perceives as threats experience a higher level of surveillance and official intervention. While such lawyers may be motivated by their Christian convictions, it is their activities, not merely the fact that they are Christians, that prompt official actions against them.
Father, we struggle as to how to pray for this complex situation. We pray for wisdom on the part of church leaders that in the midst of these confusing circumstances their churches would be good members of their communities and excellent ambassadors of Christ. And, we pray for equity throughout China regarding building regulations and other matters that affect the church, both for Christian churches and other religious organizations. We pray that the church in China would continue to flourish and, more than that, we pray that the name of Christ would be exalted and lifted high. In the Name of Jesus, who rules above all earthly rulers, Amen.