By Tom Phillips, Ningbo, Zhejiang province
6:44PM BST 19 May 2014
Protestant worshippers evicted from a mega-church in eastern China, adding to fears the fast-growing Christian community is facing renewed repression
The incident is the latest in a wave of church demolitions in the province, which has fuelled fears Beijing is gearing up for a campaign to rein in a fast-growing Christian community that some leaders fear could transform into a political threat.
Members of the Xiaying Holy Love congregation in Ningbo, a port city around 140 miles south of Shanghai, say local officials ordered them to vacate their church last month after a visiting politician was appalled by the size of the cross on its roof.
|A view of the Xiaying Holy Love Congregation in Ningbo. Photo: Qilai Shen|
Their last service was held on May 11 and in recent days Christians have removed church property from the building including air conditioning units, tables, chairs, sound equipment and even the altar. Sunday services are currently being held in the canteen of a local school.
At an emotional final service, church leaders told hundreds of congregants of the government’s decision to force them from the building, which opened last September and cost around 25 million yuan (£2.4 million) to build.
A pastor read an extract from the Book of Romans. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
On Monday The Telegraph was refused access to the enormous terracotta-coloured church by a man who refused to identify himself and demanded a photographer stop taking pictures of the building.
“The demolition work has already started,” said one local, who asked not to be named, as workers in hard-hats made their way into the apparently deserted church. “I have seen churchgoers around here crying.”
Members of the Holy Love congregation, which is part of China’s officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and therefore an unusual target, said their troubles began earlier this year when officials from the Communist Party’s Religious Affairs bureau told them their place of worship was “disturbingly eye-catching” and needed “rectifying”.
“They told us the cross was too shiny, too tall and too big,” said one church member, whose name is being withheld to protect them from retributions.
“At first they asked us to put it on the wall. We refused. Now they have told us they will tear the whole church down.”
“This church should not be demolished,” said another member, whose name is also being withheld. “Being a Christian is a good thing. It is all about peace and love. The government should support us. We have turned many bad people into good people,” the worshipper added, pointing to a number of former drug addicts and gamblers in the congregation.
The eviction is the latest crisis to hit the Christian community in Zhejiang province. At least half-a-dozen religious sites have suffered demolitions already this year year among them Protestant churches and Catholic statues. The most high profile casualty was Sanjiang, a Protestant mega-church in Wenzhou, 170 miles to the south of Ningbo, that was torn down in late April. Activists have accused the government of unleashing a “barbaric” campaign against the region’s churches.
Like Wenzhou – a city often referred to as China’s Jerusalem – Ningbo has long been home to an active Christian community.
British missionaries flocked here in the mid-19th century, foremost among them James Hudson Taylor, a Barnsley-born preacher who vowed to save locals from “dark and Christless deaths”.
The country is now thought to have up to 100 million Christians and some believe the Asian country could have the world’s largest Christian congregation by 2030. Ningbo’s Holy Love congregation has been growing fast too with around 1,000 worshippers and 40 baptisms each year, members said.
However, Communist officials appear increasingly alarmed at that growth. Earlier this year a senior Communist leader in Zhejiang warned the church’s expansion had been “too excessive”.
Asked why Party officials found large churches so disagreeable, the Ningbo church member said: “This is because they are afraid that as the number of Christians increases they will come into conflict with their policies and governance.” The church member dismissed those fears. “The reality is that we are patriots.”
Government officials have denied the demolitions represent an attack on Christianity and say they are merely targeting “illegal” buildings. However, some activists believe they are witnessing growing signs of a government push-back against Christianity that must have at least tacit approval from Beijing.
Li Heping, a Beijing-based rights lawyer who is a Christian, said border agents prevented him from boarding a flight to the United States where he was due to attend a congress on religious freedom earlier this month.
“The situation regarding religious freedom in China leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.
Sui Muqing, another Christian rights lawyer, said Beijing feared Christianity’s promotion of values such as “freedom, democracy and equality”.
“The central government must be aware” of what is going on, said the Ningbo church member, who suggested Beijing might be using Zhejiang as a “testing ground” before rolling out a nationwide “anti-church” campaign.
“All we can do is confess the officials’ sins for them, pray for them and hope they will change their minds.”
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