WENZHOU, China (Christian Examiner) – Hundreds of Protestant churches, particularly in the eastern Zhejiang Province south of Shanghai, have been targeted over the last year as part of an apparent government crackdown on the growth of Christianity.
In at least 300 instances, churches' crosses that soar over treetops are torn down. In other cases, entire structures are leveled.
"The demolition of [a] towering Protestant cathedral on the outskirts of the coast Chinese city of Wenzhou on April 28, 2014, marked the spectacular launch of a government campaign to curtail the fastest-growing religion in nominally atheist China," wrote Jamil Anderlini in an article for Financial Times.
Most recently, three elderly people fainted when they saw the huge cross being manhandled from atop a Christian nursing home in Hangzhou, provincial capital of Zhejiang, said Gao Huifang, a worker at the home. "Although everyone has recovered, the wound to our hearts will never heal," Huifang said in a Dec. 29 Reuters news report.
The growing concern, activists say, is because an estimated 100 million Christians now live in China. This is more than the 86 million officially-numbered members of the Chinese Communist Party, according to several news sources.
"It is no wonder Beijing is nervous and authorities are cracking down on Christian groups," wrote Thomas D. Williams in a Dec. 29 article on Breitbart.com. "Unrecognized Christian groups have been subject to crackdowns for years, but observers say the atmosphere is getting worse as their numbers increase and the governing Communist Party takes a more nationalist tone under President Xi Jinping."
ChinaAid.org, a Texas nonprofit ministry, lists 426 churches that were targeted in 2014. In many instances, the cross was the only thing demolished; in others, entire structures were leveled, including on April 28 the cathedral-like Sanjiang Church in Yongjia, Zhejiang Province.
Sanjiang Church, built 10 years ago, was home to more than 2,000 members, according to a ChinaAid article. The government reportedly told Sanjiang Church when it was in the planning stage that the church building must be big and imposing and should be a landmark structure in the area.
For the government to have such a complete change of heart – or at least, of policy – suggests to many that something bigger is in the offing.
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, in 2012 wrote "Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule."
"By 2030, China will almost certainly have more Christians than any other country and the Communist party is very alarmed," Yang said in the Financial Times article. "Chinese officials often cite the experience of Poland, where they believe the Catholic church helped destroy communism and, although the two situations are not really comparable, the party still sees Christianity as a very serious threat that it needs to suppress."
The Communist-ruled Peoples Republic of China has freedom of religion, but members of the Communist Party are explicitly forbidden to believe in any religion, and the anti-Christian actions of local leaders are accepted without censure, and in many cases, encouraged, according to Bob Fu, founder and director of China Aid.
The actions against churches in Zhejiang are all connected to the province's "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign, which claims to target all illegal structures, Fu said in a report on www.ChinaAid.org.
"The campaign calls on local officials to take action to 'demolish illegal structures that violate laws and regulations, occupy farmland, affect public safety and major construction, seriously affect urban and rural planning, and those that are located on both sides of main lines of transportation,'" according to the report.
In an article published by Radio Free Asia, "Fu said the main focus of Zhejiang's church and cross demolition campaign has been the coastal city of Wenzhou, which has been unofficially dubbed 'China's Jerusalem.'
"There are a great many Protestants there, the largest following in the country, so they are using it as a test run for ways to curb the spread of Protestant Christianity," Fu continued, adding that the government is also intensifying a campaign to jail prominent pastors of the larger churches, often on charges linked to running cults.
The authorities also are strictly enforcing rules forbidding minors from engaging in any religious practice, the China Aid director said.
"They want to curb missionary work among young people under [the age of] 18, and they are requiring local governments to work with schools and primary schools to spread an atheist message."