Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang are pressing ahead with a demolition campaign targeting “illegal” Christian crosses amid growing resistance from local believers.
Government-backed demolition gangs have taken down crosses from the tops of churches in provincial capital Wenzhou, Taizhou, Huzhou and Jinhua cities in recent days, in a slew of demolitions billed in state media as a building safety campaign.
A total of 16 believers and pastors were taken away by police following scuffles with a cross demolition gang last week, and eight have yet to be released, a lawyer for the church members told RFA on Wednesday.
“They were detained because they refused to allow the cross to be taken down, and so they arrested them,” lawyer Pang Kun said, adding that only seven of the detainees were known to be under criminal detention, while the status of the eighth had yet to be confirmed.
“They are all being held on suspicion of ‘running an illegal business,’ ‘obstructing official duty,’ and ‘running secret accounting procedures,’ random stuff like that,” Pang said.
“This is about the fact that they were opposed to the removal of the cross from their church, and this is a form of revenge against them,” he said. “They want to send any church that doesn’t comply into disarray.”
“This is an unreasonable act of revenge, which seriously violates the rights of these believers to freedom of religious belief,” Pang added. “It is also against the law.”
Pastors hauled away
Meanwhile, Christians in Wenzhou said that the authorities had detained eight local Protestant pastors and preachers, none of whom had been released by Wednesday evening local time.
“They were called in for a chat and I don’t think they’ve come out since, because I have asked about them,” a pastor who declined to be named said. “It is probably something to do with the crosses.”
According to a church member in Wenzhou’s Pingyang county, where a large cross was removed from a local church last week, pastor Zhang Chongyang was also taken away by police on Tuesday evening.
“He was called in for questioning by police, and he … is now under formal summons,” the church member said.
Church members in Zhejiang’s Cannon county said their pastor Liang Pu was among those hauled in for questioning.
And a pastor in Yuyaocheng village said local Protestant church members have tried to adopt civil disobedience principles in the face of the cross demolition campaign.
“As a pastor, I believe that we should stand firm but ensure no blood is shed,” the pastor said. “We need more people power, to run a non-violent resistance campaign to the bitter end.”
In Pingyang county’s Qihu church, some congregants were sent to hospital after a government-backed gang smashed down the church doors, sending them flying to the floor, before dragging them out of the church and beating them unconscious.
“He is still undergoing medical tests,” the wife of injured Qihu church member Lan Tiansi told RFA from the hospital. “The doctor wants to talk to me; I’ll speak to you later.”
'Safety and beauty'
According to the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Zhejiang authorities said they are merely “relocating” the crosses from the roofs of churches to the interior, “for the sake of safety and beauty,” it quoted local religious affairs officials as saying.
The removal is part of a three-year urbanisation and beautification campaign, which orders local governments to "revise" old neighborhoods, old industrial sites and urban villages and demolish illegal structures by 2015, it said.
A Pingyang county resident who declined to be named said the government’s cross demolition program is seen as a direct attack on the region’s Christians, however.
“It’s not as simple as pulling down a cross; it’s an attack on our beliefs, and we must rise up to resist it,” the man said. “Our resistance will be non-violent, however, because we are opposed to any form of violence.”
“The government does use violence, frequently. We believers are very angry, but we have to forgive them, right?”
Meanwhile, photos of Christians in Wenzhou, known as “China’s Jerusalem” because of the high proportion of believers, were widely retweeted on social media sites this week as they got together to make wooden crosses as part of the civil disobedience campaign.
Hong Kong media reported that the Christians plan to display the roughly-made and red-painted crosses all across the province as a form of protest against the authorities’ demolition program.
China is home to an estimated 23 million members of the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as well as an unknown number of worshipers in unofficial “house churches.”
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.