By Robert Katz and June Cheng, World Magazine.
Near a grimy steel-welding factory on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Wenzhou, a six-story, 900-seat, modern gothic-style church looms overhead with its lancet windows, spires, and stained glass. A chorus of 300 voices singing hymns in a local dialect to an out-of-tune piano rises from the sanctuary, and school-aged children learn about Christ’s ascension in Sunday school classes next door.
Yet something feels amiss about the imposing building. An upward glance to the top of the church reveals nothing but gray sky and an empty steeple—the cross that once stood there, a symbol of God’s reconciliation with man through Jesus, is gone.
Across Zhejiang, the eastern coastal province where Wenzhou is located, about 2,000 of these bright-red crosses are missing after a two-year governmental cross demolition campaign that saw excavators barreling through church façades, police in riot gear clashing with worshippers, and officials arresting dissenting pastors on trumped-up charges. Many see the demolitions as a power move by a fearful Communist Party in the face of an ever-growing Christian population. While the implications of the Wenzhou cross removals for the larger Chinese church remain to be seen, the events have revealed the resilience of the Wenzhou Christians and the power of international pressure to sway the country’s Communist leaders.
The Zhejiang cross demolitions, which began in early 2014, are unique: No other Chinese city has as many prominent churches as Wenzhou, known as the “Jerusalem of the East,” where Christians make up about 11 percent of a total population of 10 million. The churches typically maintain good relations with local authorities, as some officials are believers themselves, and Wenzhou churches can legally register their buildings as sites for religious activity without falling under the authority of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the government-sanctioned Protestant denomination. It is surprising the government is now targeting these registered churches rather than house churches.
Ostensibly, the so-called “Three Rectification and One Demolition” campaign aimed to take down illegal structures in Zhejiang. But as the number of churches affected rose into the thousands, it became clear the campaign had a target. Leaked internal documents revealed the government wanted to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the façades of the buildings.” And a proposed bill regulating minute details in church buildings further showed the government’s fear of Christianity’s visible influence in the city.
“Removing the crosses has become both a political statement of state sovereignty as well as an attempt to show the churches that the government could still exert more control if it so chooses,” said Jonathan Yang, an elder at a church of 600 in Wenzhou’s Yongqiang district.