Damian Thompson

Why is China tearing down church crosses? Because it’s terrified of religion

Why is China tearing down church crosses? Because it’s terrified of religion
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Since the beginning of this year, China has been engaged in a cruel and bizarre campaign against Christians in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang. Its main target is Wenzhou, a city known as ‘China’s Jerusalem’ because a million of its eight million residents are Christian.

Wenzhou’s 2,000 churches display hundreds of crosses that illuminate the skyline (a pattern familiar to any visitor to South Korea, where even the smallest towns sprout neon crosses). Now China wants those crosses taken down, and fast.

According to AP, at the end of July ‘200 congregants rushed to the Longgang Huai En Church in Wenzhou to protect their building – but to no avail. They ended up watching helplessly from the sidelines as police used a crane to tear off the 10-foot-tall cross that topped the building’s steeple.’

Often the Christians fight back. When the cross on the church in Wuxi village was torn off, a member of the congregation used his welding torch to replace it. He was arrested for operating a welding business without a licence. Worshippers at other churches have parked heavy lorries in front of their buildings in order to protect them.

Such impudence has made authorities in Zheijang even more obsessive in their campaign against crosses – and sometimes the buildings underneath them. A mega-church in the port city of Ningbo received a demolition order after a party official was reportedly appalled by the size of its cross. In almost every case, local authorities cite building regulations. Typically the victims are Protestant congregations authorised by the state.

For many years, China’s most persecuted Christians have been members of underground Protestant ‘house churches’ and Catholics loyal to the Vatican. In 2008, however, there was enough evidence of Beijing’s increased tolerance of unofficial worship for the US State Department to remove China from its human rights blacklist.

So why this clumsy and petty-minded new campaign against the cross? The fundamental explanation is simple. For millennia, China has had a deep-rooted fear of religion — any religion — that grows independently of the state. The clampdown against the Falun Gong sect that began in the late 1990s was not inspired by the group’s quasi-Buddhist teachings, centred around traditional Chinese breathing exercises. What Beijing hated was the fact that the Falun Gong network was spreading uncontrollably via the newly popular internet.

Evangelical Christianity in Zhejiang has also begun to spread uncontrollably. The province itself is unstable: it has grown rich quickly thanks to a demand for cheap manufactured goods that may evaporate. Rapid social change has eroded deference. The Protestants of ‘China’s Jerusalem’ are not — yet — politically opposed to the Communist government. But their faith, like Zhejiang’s economy, is entrepreneurial and excitable. Hence their bravely stroppy defence of their rooftop crosses, whose prominence does indeed have a defiant flavour to it.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Tom Phillips wrote about ‘breakneck conversion’: some experts believe that, by 2030, there will be nearly 250 million Christians in China, easily outranking the United States. One day, more than 20 per cent of citizens could be followers of Jesus Christ — and, unlike the more easily contained Muslim and Tibetan religious minorities, ethnically Chinese.

That prospect horrifies Beijing, which will do everything in its power to stop it happening. If the experience of Zhejiang is anything to go by, the assault on churches may not be particularly bloodthirsty, but it will be crude, unrelenting — and bureaucratic. That’s not good news for Christians, because bureaucracy is what China does best.