In the past year, the government of a wealthy coastal province in China has taken the same thing from more than 400 churches: a big red cross.

The removals in the Zhejiang city of Wenzhou, known as “China’s Jerusalem,” were ordered by provincial party secretary Xia Baolong. And the teardowns won’t stop until 2016, the government told religious leaders.

To be sure, removing crosses is not as devastating as China’s closing and crushing of churches during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. But it has provoked a similar response. Instead of demoralizing Christians, the persecution has “stiffened their resolve and commitment,” China Source president Brent Fulton said. “It brought home that believers have a price to pay.”

The cross removals are also prompting more Christians to self-reflect.

“Christians in Wenzhou [are] wondering what lessons God wants them to take from this campaign,” said Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. Some wonder if they need to shift their focus from the physical building to training ministers and sending out missionaries, or if the size of their churches revealed pride.

“[Christians] have learned that a church building is not the same as a congregation of believers,” wrote Zhang Yuan, a columnist for the Christian Times newspaper in mainland China. “So now, instead of competing to see who can build the best building, the focus has shifted to the spiritual construction of believers.”

‘Instead of competing to see who can build the best building, the focus has shifted to the spiritual construction of believers.’ zhang yuan, Christian times columnist

The cross removals have also torn down a metaphorical wall between the unregistered house churches and the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches, Yang said. Before the campaign, the two didn’t cooperate, he said.

This is the first time the government has demolished Three-Self churches, said Kody Kness, vice president of China Aid. That destruction is bringing house and official church communities closer together “in a way only experiencing persecution can,” he said.

For example, Huang Yizi, a Three-Self pastor, was sentenced to a year in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” when his congregation formed a human wall to try to keep their cross. House church attendees compose his entire legal team.

The government says it is removing crosses because the churches were built illegally. Some of the buildings were constructed larger than their permits allowed. But internal government documents obtained by The New York Times last year revealed a different motivation.

“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways, and provincial highways,” the document said. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”

The “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign seeks to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities. To the government, the cross-topped buildings are an evangelistic tool.

And that can be true, Fulton of China Source said. Some believers argue that in China’s consumer economy, the church needs a certain level of visibility and sophistication. Younger Chinese Christians aren’t as willing to sit in someone’s living room and have a church service, he said.

Some argue the building itself, not just the cross, can draw seekers. “When outsiders see the good life of Christians, they are gradually drawn to the faith,” wrote a Gospel Times commenter. “If worship took place in secret, do you think there would be so many Christians in Wenzhou?”

Though the physical cross can evangelize, an even bigger issue is the allegiance it represents, Yang said. “Both sides—the Communist Party and the Christians—see this as a symbolic fight. Who are you submissive to?” (Estimates suggest China has 70 million Christians over age 16 and 85 million Communist Party members.)

A Christian’s loyalty belongs to Christ, but even Jesus counsels the Pharisees to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” said Yang. That’s something Chinese Christians are “thinking over and over.”

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