China Officials Shut Down Outdoor Christmas Party

BEIJING December 16, 2011 (AP)

Chinese police and government officials scuffled with Christians and smashed sound equipment for a public Christmas celebration in an eastern village known for unofficial house churches and producing ornaments.

Christians in Xintan village said Friday that the officials wrecked a mixing console, turned over an electric piano and pushed and punched worshippers, injuring five, Tuesday night. A local official said the believers hit first, sending a deputy village head to the hospital.

“There were a few hundred of us. And the village heads were there too, and they were even more violent,” said Wang Jingfeng, one of the Christians present. “This is like a dog biting a rat.”

Setting off the scuffle was an attempt by an unregistered local church to hold a Christmas gala on a stage set up in a village square.

The Xintan Village Church, in a video posted on YouTube, said the local government authorized the event. But a higher-level official in charge of religious affairs said the believers were asked a day earlier to cancel because regulations forbid worship outdoors and Buddhists in the community complained.

“We told them that any outdoors event of a religious nature is strictly banned from being organized, and that’s what it states in the government rule on religion,” said Zeng Jianhua, deputy director of religious affairs in Ruian city, which oversees Xintan.

Though small on the surface, the to-do underscores the blurry status of religion in a fast-changing China. Belief in all faiths is soaring while the officially atheistic, communist government is wary about religious groups growing popular and beyond its control.

Some Communist Party members are getting caught up in the revival, violating party rules and becoming active religious believers in a trend that drew a high-level admonition Friday. “If we let party members believe in religion … this will inevitably result in the splits in the party organization,” Zhu Weiqun, a vice minister for the United Front Work Department, wrote in an essay in the party magazine “Seeking Truth.”

The hills and rocky coastline around Ruian are teeming with Buddhist shrines and Christian churches mixed in among small, privately owned factories producing clothes and other consumer goods. While many of these Christian congregations, often called house churches because they originally operated in people’s homes, are unauthorized, officials often turn a blind eye to them as long as they’re discreet.

Ruian has become home to makers of toys and Christmas ornaments. Xintan bills itself as “Christmas village.” Local factories produced more than $78 billion, or 500 million yuan, in Christmas products this year, prompting local officials to stage a Christmas arts and culture fair last Saturday in celebration. That inspired the Xintan Village Church to hold its own nighttime Christmas party Tuesday, the church statement said.

The video the church posted online showed people putting up decorations on a stage with a red backdrop that says “Silent Night” in Chinese and English and below that “2011 Christmas Village Christmas Party” while Christmas music plays in the background. Uniformed police then cut the electricity, killing the sound, while throngs flood the stage pushing and shoving.

Zeng, the religious affairs official, said the church members had been obstinate, turning down government requests to call off the event. The authorities acted, he said, because they were worried that the party might rile the local Buddhist community.

“There has long been tension between the Christians and the Buddhists, ” Zeng said. “And among the village officials, some are Christians and some are Buddhists. Some of the village officials wanted to beat them, and we stopped them. Nobody beat anyone.”

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