Church Demolition Highlights China's Fears Over Spread of Christianity

Officials check vehicles leading to the town of Oubei, outside the city of Wenzhou on April 30, 2014, where Chinese authorities began demolishing a Christian church two days earlier.

This week's demolition of a massive Protestant church in the eastern city of Wenzhou highlights the growing uneasiness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party over burgeoning numbers of Christians in the nominally atheist country, analysts said.

Authorities completed on Monday the demolition of the 85,000-square foot (nearly 7,900-square meter) Sanjiang church, which once dominated the city with its soaring spires, gleaming white walls, and stained glass windows, saying it had far exceeded the size allowed in the building permit.

Christians in Wenzhou, whose large numbers have earned it the nickname "the Jerusalem of the East," launched a frantic campaign to save the church, which was once designated a "model construction project" by the local government.

While Wenzhou officials defended the move, saying they are moving to demolish illegal structures in the city regardless of who owns them, analysts and activists said the U.S. $5 million church had become a too-visible reminder of the sheer numbers of Chinese turning to Protestant Christianity, and of their considerable financial muscle.

"While the Zhejiang provincial government ... claims that [their campaign] isn't aimed at Protestants, the majority of buildings that have been demolished so far have been Protestant churches," Yang Fenggang, director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in Indiana, told RFA.

"The reason for this is probably that the growth of Protestantism in Zhejiang is worrying some officials."

He said some local ruling Chinese Communist Party officials are unhappy at the number of crosses visible on the city's skyline.

"That's why they gave the order to demolish churches, because they think it will slow the development of Protestant Christianity in China, or even halt it altogether," Yang said.

'Model project'

Bob Fu, who heads the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said Sanjiang Church, which took six years to build and was only completed in 2013, originally had the government's blessing.

"The irony is that last year, Sanjiang Church was designated a model construction project by the Wenzhou municipal government, and the government was full of praise for it when it was finished," Fu said.

"Now, suddenly, the church has become an illegal structure."

Fu said sources in Wenzhou had told him that the change of heart could be traced back to a directive from Beijing at the end of 2013, calling on governments to take steps to curb the spread of Protestant Christianity in China.

"After that, the Zhejiang provincial government sent out a number of special directives calling on local city and county-level governments to launch the demolition campaign," he said.

"The religious buildings were to be designated illegal structures, and the focus was to be Protestant churches," Fu said.

Growing numbers

Yang said the government's campaign to curb Christianity will likely have the opposite effect, however.

"According to current trends ... by 2030 there will be more Protestants in China than there are in the United States," he said. "China will become the country with the biggest Protestant population in the world."

He said the demand for new places of Protestant worship has outstripped supply many times over since economic reforms began in 1979.

"A conservative estimate of the number of new followers [since then] is at least 58 million, while Catholics gained nine million," Yang said. "Oppression by the Chinese government simply won't be able to stem the rise of Protestant Christianity in China."

According to an annual report released on Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Chinese government continues to perpetrate "particularly severe" violations of religious freedom.

"Independent Catholics and Protestants face arrests, fines, and the shuttering of their places of worship," the report said, adding that China should be designated a "country of particular concern" because of systematic and ongoing abuses of religious communities.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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