WASHINGTON — Last week, Christians in the southeastern Chinese city of Wenzhou prevented an attempt by demolition workers to remove a cross from the roof of the Guantou church.
Chinese Christians and human rights activists view the incident as the latest attempt by authorities to subvert Christianity. In April, the city’s huge Sanjiang Church was demolished, allegedly because it failed to meet building codes.
“Look at what just happened in Zhejiang [the province containing Wenzhou],” said Bob Fu, pastor and founder of the China Aid Association, an organization which provides legal aid to Christians in China.
“We just documented over 83 churches, either the church was destroyed or the crosses of the church were forcibly removed in the past few months,” said Fu.
The destruction comes amid a significant growth in the number of Chinese who call themselves Christians. A 2010 Pew survey estimated that Christians comprise five percent of the country’s population, or 67 million people. It is hard to obtain an exact figure, because many Christians worship at underground or so-called house churches.
“China is in the midst of a huge religious revival, across the board, which includes Christianity,” said Daniel Bays, emeritus professor of history at Calvin College, and author of the book, A New History of Christianity in China.
“There are signals that the government is always concerned about religious groups, and that includes Christians, so that religious groups that are not registered in some fashion with the government or the [Communist] party come under automatic suspicion,” said Bays.
But the Sanjiang church had been government sanctioned, which is why its destruction shocked Chinese Christians. VOA attempted to contact the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. but they refused to comment on the issue.
Officially, China is an atheist nation which recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. But Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs say they face religious persecution.
Some observers believe by 2030, China could have the largest number of Christians in the world if the religion’s growth continues at its current rate.
“I think from the Chinese government documents, both the public documents and those secret documents we obtained, it seems there is an increasing worry about the rapid growth of Christianity overall, first in Zhejiang, apparently also reflects the top Communist Party Leader’s worry,” said Fu. “So this is one way to contain the growth of this Christian faith.”
Official reluctance on Christianity
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Communist Party, hailed the contributions of Buddhism to China earlier this year. He also praised other traditional faiths, including Confucianism and Taoism. There have also been attempts by some officials to portray Christianity as a foreign religion forced upon China in past centuries.
“There are still some old cadres in the party who really dislike Christianity as a leftover piece of the imperialist structure, the structure by which the foreign countries of the world, the U.S. and the Europeans, forced China to take its missionaries in to propagate Christianity and [they] still have a great historical resentment and view Christianity as a Western religion,“ Bays said.
But there are internal pressures as well. A Roman Catholic priest, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, angered Chinese officials in 2012 when he announced he was leaving the state sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as he was being installed as the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai.
The government organization has clashed with the Vatican. Ma was later detained at a seminary and lost his position.
“His case is a vivid dilemma of the church-state relationship overall,” said Fu. “It’s a control effort , when Bishop Ma announced he just wants to wear one hat with the appointment of the Vatican, that caused him trouble.”