And The Walls Came Tumbling Down in China's 'Jerusalem'
Despite the effort of hundreds of Chinese Christians who formed a "human shield" to defend their brand-new megachurch, reports of its demolition have emerged from southern China.
Wenzhou's Sanjiang Church—an impressive eight-story structure that government officials previously called a "model project"—took six years and $3.2 million in donations to build, according to The Washington Post. The congregation is listed under the government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement, reports AsiaNews, yet it occupies five times more square feet than what regulations originally designated—complicating the common narrative of "atheist government persecutes Christians."
While excavators spent Monday, April 30, tearing down the church, Communist Party officials insisted the destruction was because of city zoning, not religious persecution, reports The Telegraph. Government officials claim they are cracking down on illegal structures throughout the country.
On the face of it, it seemed like a classic case of an oppressive atheistic regime going after an innocent group of Christians. However, as the story unfolded and continued to be reported in the Chinese press (both Christian and secular), it became clear that it was much more complicated than that.
Open Doors's China coordinator offers background on the incident (see interview at bottom), and noted how the church standoff was a "study in China's complexity."
The Sanjiang Church is in Wenzhou—or the "the Jerusalem of the East," as many describe the wealthy port city. It is home to China's largest Christian community, with local Christians claiming that 15 percent of Wenzhou's seven million residents go to church.
Thousands of those Christians turned out to defend Sanjiang, forming a 'human shield' and sitting in the building around-the-clock to prevent the demolition in mid-April until local officials and church leaders appeared to reach an agreement: the main building could stay, but two levels of a seven-story annex would be torn down, according to World Watch Monitor.
Now, the entire building has appeared to have been torn down, and several arrests have also been reported, including at least five Sanjiang church leaders.
ChinaSource offers four theories on the about-face:
The agreement from a few weeks ago was just a stall tactic on the part of the local officials to get the spotlight turned off of them; they never intended to abide by it. The worldwide publicity a few weeks ago caused the local officials to lose so much face that they felt they must take action to avoid appearing weak. (Local officials are nothing, if not petty.) The local officials have a quota of how many illegally built structures they are supposed to "rectify," and this helps meet that quota. The local officials really are worried about the explosive growth of Christianity in Zhejiang.
Christian persecution in China has increased nearly 40 percent since 2012, ChinaAid recently claimed. Last year, ChinaAid leader Bob Fu argued the Chinese government was seeking to eradicate house churches. However, China Source and World Watch Monitor disagreed with Fu, arguing that China was not trying to destroy Christianity.
CT regularly reports on China, including recent measures for pastors to curb cult violence and how China relaxed its one-child policy. CT has also interviewed Fu as well as the head of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Open Doors' China coordinator Xiao Yun explained the Sanjiang demolition as follows (questions are from Open Doors, not CT):
Can you tell us the background of what has since become known as the Sanjiang Church Incident?
"In Wenzhou as well as in many other cities there are a lot of registered and unregistered house churches. It is very common for Chinese to build illegally or partially illegally. In this case, the church received permission to build a church with a on 20,000 square feet, or about half an acre. The congregation instead built a church and an annex on 100,000 square feet, or nearly 3 acres. The local government turned a blind eye and even called it a 'model project'. But, according to some sources, last Fall the provincial governor visited the city and complained about the big church, which is situated just opposite the main city district. He asked if it had violated any rules. The local government was afraid and initially only asked the church to take the cross down. When the Christians refused, the authorities threatened to demolish the entire church building."
You say 'according to some sources'. What are the facts?
"The fact is that the influence of this governor is unconfirmed. What is a fact, is that in 2013 the provincial government implemented a policy to reconstruct or demolish any old or illegal constructions. This is a policy applicable to all sorts of buildings and not only churches. The Sanjiang church is on this list of illegal constructions."
And this led to a stand-off between the church and the local government?
"In November, the authorities gave the church a three month ultimatum. From that moment on the church members started to surround the church and guard it day and night. Usually there were only a few church members guarding the church, not immense crowds. The government was not happy and threatened other Christians: if they supported the Sanjiang Church, their churches would be demolished also. Unfortunately, this behavior is quite common for local authorities. When they quickly want to end a dispute, they just threaten the other party."
The church and the authorities have reached an agreement. What kind of agreement?
"Basically the case is settled because the church is willing to demolish the top two floors from the annex building behind the church and the authority agreed not to demolish the church or the cross. In other words: the area occupied by the church buildings was not to be reduced."
What happened after the agreement was reached?
"Firstly, instead of two floors, four floors were demolished. The exact reason was unknown to us. What became clear very soon, was that both the government and the church are not handling this case very well. This led to the local government losing even more face. Now it seems the entire building has been destroyed and several arrests have been made. The most likely reason is that local officials are afraid of being seen as weak. Besides, there are more churches on the list of illegal constructions. Unfortunately for the Sanjiang congegration, the authorities couldn't let them get away with this. It is a shame that this beautiful building was destroyed. At the same time, we received reports that two smaller churches in the same province were also demolished. The regional and local government are enforcing the policy to tackle illegal constructions."
What does this 'incident' tell us about persecution in China?
"It shows us there is always more than meets the eye. Again, unfortunately for the Christians, the authorities have solid ground to tear the church down if they want to enforce the law. It is very common that Chinese officials do not want to be seen as incapable by their seniors and they try to avoid making trouble. We heard about a number of conflicts between churches and the authorities and eventually they compromised and saved faces to each other. 'Saving faces' in Chinese culture is more important than abiding the law. To summarize: the conflict between the church and the local government had to do with the violation of regulations and the way the government dealt with it. It was not a clash between the ideological enemies 'communists' and Christians, but rather two parties who couldn't save face."
How did Christians in China react to this case?
"We heard that believers in China are not worrying but just showing concern. What is very positive is that we can see how Chinese believers have advocated for themselves and negotiated successfully with the government. We also see many calls for prayer on Chinese social media, another sign that Christians are not afraid to take a stand."
What kind of persecution still exists in China?
"Several kinds. All churches, both registered and unregistered are still monitored, but definitely not to the degree of ten years ago. Usually the police and authorities just want to know about your activities and don't give you any restrictions on your teachings or gatherings. Of course very large churches are more monitored than others. Churches with overseas connections have even more surveillance. A connection with foreigners, especially Westerners, is discouraged, to say the least. For example, the Shouwang Church in Beijing received funding from other countries. But usually Christians are not arrested anymore. Those days are generally over. Recently the government also cancelled its labour camp policy, in which the police could send someone to a camp without trial. Our research has shown that nowadays most persecution in China takes place among Chinese Muslim and Tibetan minorities, where families and clerics can make the lives of Christian converts very difficult. Believers may be abused, mistreated or thrown out of their families."