The New York Times: Chinese Province Issues Draft Regulation on Church Crosses

The New York Times

MAY 8, 2015

HONG KONG — Cities in Zhejiang, one of China’s most prosperous provinces, are studded with Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic alike. Until recently, many of them had been topped by large crosses soaring into the sky, often illuminated with neon lights at night.

Under a new draft regulation made public this week by the provincial government, such crosses — those that have not already been removed by government order — will most likely have to come down.

In painstaking detail, the 36-page directive sets out strict guidelines for where and how churches in Zhejiang can display crosses. They must be placed on the facades of buildings, not above them. They must be of a color that blends into the building, not one that stands out. And they must be small: no more than one-tenth the height of the building’s facade.

The rules put new legal force behind a continuing campaign in Zhejiang to remove crosses from the tops of churches, as the government works to hide the most visible sign of Christianity’s explosive growth in the province. Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang with more than nine million people, is often referred to as China’s Jerusalem because of its heavily Christian population and big churches.

Christianity, which was strictly controlled in China during the first decades of Communist rule, began to flourish after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, as the officially atheist party relaxed its grip on society. Some estimates now put the number of Chinese faithful at more than 100 million, far more than when foreign missionaries and priests were expelled after the Communist takeover in 1949. Many churches are sanctioned by the government, but others operate outside the official sphere.

But since President Xi Jinping rose to the top party and government posts starting in 2012, there has been a new focus on reining in foreign influences that are seen as threatening the party’s grip on power.

In Zhejiang, the campaign against crosses can be traced to a visit to Wenzhou in October 2013 by Xia Baolong, the Communist Party’s top official in the province. He was upset that one officially sanctioned house of worship, the Sanjiang Church, dominated the local skyline with its 180-foot spire, The New York Times reported in May 2014.

The Sanjiang church was demolished in April of last year, and crosses on churches across the province have been taken down, a process that has often led to confrontations between parishioners and the police.

“We feel helpless and don’t know what to do next,” said a pastor at one Wenzhou church, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared government retaliation.

The pastor, who once served on a government-sanctioned committee that oversaw churches, said more crosses had recently been removed in the area. “We thought the storm of toppling crosses had stopped,” he said, “but it hasn’t.”

A policy statement that circulated among Zhejiang officials last year, which was not meant for distribution to the public, made it clear that the objective of the campaign was to make crosses less visible. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings,” read the document, which was reviewed by The Times last year.

The new draft regulation goes into great detail about the architectural limitations to be placed on Zhejiang churches — detail that sometimes recall, presumably unintentionally, the directives found in the Old Testament for building tabernacles and temples.

Crosses on the facades of Catholic churches are to have a height-to-width ratio of one to 0.618. For Protestant crosses, the ratio should be three to two. Churches’ kitchens and bathrooms should primarily use solar power or other renewable energy to heat water.

Fan Yafeng, director of the Zhongfu Shengshan Research Institute, a Beijing-based nonprofit group that studies Chinese Christianity, said the new rules in Zhejiang fit well with calls from the central government to emphasize “Christianity with Chinese characteristics” — a bid to tamp down what are seen as foreign influences within the church that support democratization in China.

“Through limiting Christianity’s impact in social, public and political realms in China,” the government “wants to destroy the relationship between Christianity and Chinese democratization,” said Mr. Fan, who was formerly a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research institute.

Zhejiang’s new regulations were issued weeks after a Christian pastor in the province was sentenced to a year in jail after speaking out about the removal of crosses. The pastor, Huang Yizi, who served at a government-sanctioned church, had questioned why the police last July beat more than 50 parishioners who had tried to stop the authorities from taking down a cross at the Salvation Church, a Protestant place of worship.

Mr. Huang was arrested last August, and the church’s cross was removed several days later. He was charged with “gathering crowds to disturb social order,” a charge commonly used in China to imprison people who speak out against government policies.

Fang Shenglan, an official at the Zhejiang government’s architectural and design institute who was listed as a contact person for questions regarding the new draft directive, did not respond to calls or a text message.

A man who answered the phone at Zhejiang’s ethnic and religious affairs committee could be heard asking his colleagues how to respond to questions about the directive. “It’s too sensitive,” one female voice said. “Say we don’t know.”

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