Crosses Decapitated from Churches In Christian Heartland of China

In 2014, a church blocked a gate to protect its cross. (Didi Tang/Associated Press)
In 2014, a church blocked a gate to protect its cross. (Didi Tang/Associated Press)

Along the valleys and mountains hugging the East China Sea, a Chinese government campaign to remove crosses from church spires has left the countryside looking as if a typhoon had raged down the coast, decapitating buildings at random.

In the town of Shuitou, workers used blowtorches to cut a 10-foot-high cross off the 120-foot steeple of the Salvation Church. It now lies in the churchyard, wrapped in a red shroud.

About 10 miles to the east, in Mabu township, riot police officers blocked parishioners from entering the grounds of the Dachang Church while workers erected scaffolding and sawed off the cross. In the nearby villages of Ximei, Aojiang, Shanmen and Tengqiao, crosses now lie toppled on rooftops or in yards, or buried like corpses.

On a four-day journey through this lush swath of China’s Zhejiang Province, I spoke with residents who described in new detail the breathtaking scale of an effort to remove Christianity’s most potent symbol from public view. Over the past two years, officials and residents said, the authorities have torn down crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches, sometimes after violent clashes with worshipers trying to stop them.

“It’s been very difficult to deal with,” said one church elder in Shuitou, who like others asked for anonymity in fear of retaliation by the authorities. “We can only get on our knees and pray.”

The campaign has been limited to Zhejiang Province, home to one of China’s largest and most vibrant Christian populations. But people familiar with the government’s deliberations say the removal of crosses here has set the stage for a new, nationwide effort to more strictly regulate spiritual life in China, reflecting the tighter control of society favored by President Xi Jinping.

In a major speech on religious policy last month, Mr. Xi urged the ruling Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and he warned that religions in China must “Sinicize,” or become Chinese. The instructions reflect the government’s longstanding fear that Christianity could undermine the party’s authority. Many human rights lawyers in China are Christians, and many dissidents have said they are influenced by the idea that rights are God-given.

In recent decades, the party had tolerated a religious renaissance in China, allowing most Chinese to worship as they chose and even encouraging the construction of churches, mosques and temples, despite regular crackdowns on unregistered congregations and banned spiritual groups such as Falun Gong.

Hundreds of millions of people have embraced the nation’s major faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity. There are now about 60 million Christians in China. Many attend churches registered with the government, but at least half worship in unregistered churches, often with local authorities looking the other way.

But Mr. Xi’s decision to convene a “religious affairs work conference” last month — the first such leadership meeting in 15 years — suggested that he was unhappy with some of these policies. People familiar with the party’s discussions say it intends to apply some lessons from the campaign in Zhejiang to rein in religious groups across the country.

While the government is unlikely to begin tearing down crosses across China, the sources say, local authorities are expected to begin scrutinizing the finances and foreign ties of churches and other spiritual institutions as part of an effort to limit the influence of religions the party considers a threat, especially Christianity.

“What has been happening in Zhejiang is a test,” said Fan Yafeng, an independent legal scholar in Beijing. “If the government views it as a success, it will be expanded.”

Broadening the campaign to regulate religion could backfire on Mr. Xi, with worshipers abandoning government-run churches in favor of underground congregations, which typically meet unobtrusively in office buildings or homes. It could also antagonize many of the urban, white-collar professionals who have embraced Christianity.

“Treating it as a foreign religion could alienate these people,” said Fredrik Fallman, a scholar who studies Chinese Christianity at the University of Goteborg in Sweden. “But this might also be the purpose — to be a warning.”

Set in a valley 10 miles from the coast, Shuitou is a small market town of streaked-concrete housing blocks and pell-mell streets. Most of its traditional places of worship — Buddhist, Taoist and ancestral shrines for deceased relatives — are small structures, sometimes built on the side of a mountain and usually hidden from view.

But since the 1980s, 14 churches in Shuitou have been financed with donations from local entrepreneurs eager to show off their newfound prosperity and hard-won faith. The naves are several stories tall, and the spires rise more than 100 feet.

Until recently, most were topped with bright red crosses. But crosses have been removed from half the churches in Shuitou, with orders coming every month for more to come down. Many worshipers interviewed said they feared an era was coming to end.

“For years, we had no problems with the authorities,” a local worshiper said. “Our churches were welcomed by the government.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Ian Johnson

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