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.”

The cross removals have also torn down a metaphorical wall between the unregistered house churches and the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches, ...

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