World Magazine: Chinese leaders order all crosses demolished

World Magazine
Christians warn compliance will lead to greater governmental control over church teaching
By June Cheng

July 29, 2015, 02:00 p.m.

In early July, authorities approached a Wenzhou church network with an ultimatum posed to thousands of other churches in Zhejiang province: Take down the crosses on top of your churches, or else.

A man watches as Chinese officials burn a cross
atop a church in Wenzhou.

Hong Kong Free Press/Weibo

It wasn’t the first time authorities had approached the church, explained Timothy, a preacher and network leader who asked to use only his first name for security purposes. In February 2014, authorities asked his network of two dozen churches to take down some of the taller, more noticeable crosses from atop churches along main roads. When church leaders asked officials what law gave them authority to destroy their crosses, the officials couldn’t produce an official document and ended up leaving the churches alone.

But this time, they came back not only demanding the roadside crosses be taken down, but all the crosses on all the churches. In talks with church leaders, officials again had no official documents to show but threatened if the church didn’t obey, they would take the crosses down themselves.

As the campaign to demolish crosses in Zhejiang province stretches on past the year-and-a-half mark, local believers are looking for new ways to peacefully resist the government’s demands. So far, 1,200 crosses have vanished from the cityscape, and Christians are forming small-scale protests, protecting crosses with their bodies, and making their own personal wooden crosses. Some churches, such as Timothy’s, have vowed to leave the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) if officials forcibly remove their crosses. They fear government encroachment into not just the church’s facade but its theological foundation.

Last week, 20 Catholic priests, including 89-year-old Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang, held a small protest in front of the Wenzhou government offices. Holding a sign that read “Maintaining religious dignity and opposing the forced removal of crosses,” the group stayed for about two hours as police watched but did not interfere, according to Union of Catholic Asian News.

Believers have also turned to social media to spread news about the demolitions, much to the government’s chagrin. Recently, photos of Christians making piles of small red wooden crosses by hand have gone viral on Weibo, China’s social media platform. Pastors urged Christians to put crosses on their homes and wear crosses around their necks.

“Tomorrow you will see crosses everywhere in Zhejiang,” Father Chen of Sichuan Catholic Seminary wrote on Weibo.

Jason Zheng, a Christian in Chengdu who originally posted the photos on Weibo on Saturday after seeing them on Facebook (which is blocked in the country), told me that in half a day, his post garnered more than 100,000 views and 1,000 reposts. Government censors quickly stepped in to stop its spread, and Zhejiang agents visited both his parents and his own home to ask questions and demand he stop sharing articles and photos related to the cross demolitions. Zheng believes the police are nervous about anything hindering their goal of ridding Wenzhou’s Pingyang County of all crosses in the next few months.

On Tuesday, parishioners of a church in Pingyang tried to block police from forcibly entering the building to take down its cross, reported human rights website Boxun. Cell phone photos show a line of police gathering outside the church as the worshippers tried barricading the doors. In the scuffle, police knocked several people down, and beat one man unconscious.

At Timothy’s church, Christians have set up 24-hour guard to protect their cross, ready to call the rest of the church members if officials show up. In the past few days, officials quietly removed the crosses from two of their smaller, rural churches in the middle of the night. In response, church leaders replaced them with new crosses.

In the past, Wenzhou churches have maintained a good relationship with the government, as many influential people in society are themselves believers, Timothy said. His church network is registered under the TSPM, but acts independently from the government’s religious bureau, a setup unique to Wenzhou. Timothy believes one reason for the current crackdown is the government’s desire to exert greater control over what is preached from the pulpit.

“After you allow them to take down your cross, the government will require you to ‘walk together with one heart’ with them … and they’ll start to do activities at your church and develop a closer relationship,” he said.

In some cases that means pastors would need to allow about five to 10 minutes after Sunday sermons for officials to speak from the pulpit about topics such as President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.”

Timothy stresses government influence could change even core Christian doctrines. For instance, in order to promote social stability, preachers could be forced to stop preaching about heaven and hell, as it might upset non-believers visiting church. Instead, pastors would be urged to speak about less controversial topics, such as love. The same pressure used to take down the cross would be leveraged to the content of sermons, Timothy said.

“For us, this is a bigger problem because they are changing the fundamentals of our faith,” he concluded.

If the authorities continue to pressure the church network or forcibly demolish its crosses, it will completely cut itself off from the TPSM and will employ lawyers to protect its rights, leaders say. Timothy also said it was important to continue informing the public through social media about what is happening.

But on the other hand, Timothy sees the persecution strengthening the church in two main ways. Because Wenzhou residents are good businessmen, their churches are some of the wealthiest in the country. But the latest campaign has reminded them the focus of their faith is on Christ’s work on the cross, rather than outwardly beautiful church buildings. Secondly, the cross removals reveal the ugly reality of the TSPM.

“This shows more clearly that the TSPM is a tool of the government, not a true representation of the church,” Timothy said.

China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985
Email: [email protected]