Authorities in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang have solicited public comments on draft rules regarding construction standards for religious buildings, said to be aimed at ensuring building quality and protecting public safety.
They may wish they hadn’t asked.
Earlier this month authorities in the province unveiled their “Trial Regulations on Religious Structures,” and the main source of contention has been the limits on the size of crosses and the manner in which they are displayed. The regulations state that a cross should not be more than one-tenth the size of the church’s façade. They also state that crosses should be affixed to the façade rather than tower over the building.
Provincial officials did not give a further explanation of why they were rolling out the regulations at this point. But Zhejiang has long been a center of Christianity in China – and the scene of disputes over religious symbols. It also wasn’t clear whether the new restrictions were part of a central government effort to limit the influence of religious groups.
While the regulations also affect places of worship of other religious groups, including Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims, most of the pushback has come from the Protestant and Catholic communities.
Chong-Yi Church in the provincial capital Hangzhou posted its response to the regulations on its website before the end of the comment period earlier this month, saying the rules interfere with religious freedom and traditional customs.
“Crosses, as the symbols of the Christian faith, are signs of love. For nearly 2,000 years, crosses have been atop churches and not ‘wholly affixed to the façade of the main religious building.’ Such a legislative standard profanes Christianity’s most basic beliefs and tramples on the law and spirit of religious freedom,” the church wrote.
|A pastor speaks with a church member in front of theWuxi
Christian Church in Wenzhou. (Didi Tang/Associated Press)
Chong-Yi, which is linked to the official Protestant organization, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches of China, also said that the language used in the regulations was vague. “Once [the standard] is in effect, [it] could easily cause confusion and religious conflict, which is not conductive to social stability.”
The Wenzhou Catholic parish, which is supervised by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, was officially quiet. But there were unhappy members among the faithful.
“We are extremely unhappy about this. Putting crosses atop churches is an architectural tradition,” said one microblog posting on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. It went on to say: “Other buildings are being built higher and higher, but churches are forced to be built lower and lower.”
A member of the Catholic community in Wenzhou who gave his name only as Chen told China Real Time it was difficult to understand the government’s motivation for the rules. “There is no legal basis for this,” said the man, who described himself as a long-time member of the parish.
The move has drawn criticism from some academics. Wei Dedong, associate professor at the school of philosophy at Renmin University, argued in a posting on Weibo that there was no basis for the standards on the height or width of a cross, and that authorities should “explain in detail” their rationale.
The draft standards also make somewhat more conventional points, insisting that new buildings should be designed to withstand a magnitude-6 earthquake, colors should be in harmony with the environment, attention should be paid to sound-proofing and that there must be adequate measures for fire prevention and emergency evacuation.
The official media has come out in support of the regulations. The Zhejiang Dailypublished commentaries by academics last week stating that sites of religious worship need to meet basic legal requirements. They added that such buildings should avoid being ostentatious.
“If religious buildings are constructed in violation of the law, in disregard of the environment and of other people in the surrounding area, it will be not only harm the interests of society, but will also hurt the image of religion,” wrote Chen Yongge, a researcher at the institute of philosophy at the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences.
According to Christianity Today, a U.S. religious publication, Zhejiang has toppled crosses from more than 400 churches since early 2014. That tally could not be independently confirmed.
Last year, authorities demolished the Sanjiang Christian Church, one of the biggest in Wenzhou, despite noisy protests. The government said the building violated construction rules in place at that time. In March of this year, a pastor in Wenzhou, Huang Yize, was sentenced to one year in prison on the charge of disturbing public order when he tried to prevent the removal of a church cross.
“We really don’t understand why they are doing this to us,” said Mr. Chen of the Wenzhou Catholic parish. “Is there a new policy of religion from the central government? We haven’t seen problems like these in a long time. Is it because we have so many believers in Zhejiang?”
According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, China has about 5.5 million Catholics and approximately 6,000 churches and other gathering places, while there are about 23 million Protestants and 250,000 churches in China. But some scholars believe that worshippers at unofficial house churches could range from 30 million to 60 million. By comparison, the officially atheist Communist Party claims about 80 million members.
– Olivia Geng and William Kazer