Concerned that Christianity was growing too fast and in an “unsustainable” manner, local officials in the province of Zhejiang began a campaign in February to demolish any church buildings that violated local regulations, according to a government Web site.
But the real targets, local Christians say, are the prominent crosses that many churches use to advertise their presence. Several Christian leaders allege that the provincial Communist Party secretary objected to seeing many large and bright crosses during a recent trip along a major highway, and ordered some to be removed.
Since then, at least six crosses have been taken down in cities including Hangzhou and Zhoushan, according to ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group. Now, another is under threat -- at Sanjiang church in the city of Wenzhou, a large, new building that can hold up to 2,000 people.
Some churches were told to take the crosses down and to instead hang smaller ones inside the buildings. At Sanjiang Church, officials also demanded the church remove several small spires on the rooftop: When church leaders refused, officials threatened to tear down the entire building, said Zheng Leguo, an evangelical church leader from Wenzhou.
Although the church is registered with the authorities, it does not belong to the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” of Protestant churches that critics say is closely controlled by the Communist Party.
Local Christians say they pooled together more than 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) to build the church, which was completed last year. The church complex occupies more than 100,000 square feet of land. Locals admit it only has approval for around 20,000 square feet but say that this type of skirting around regulations is relatively commonplace in Zhejiang province.
Authorities sent the church a notice on April 3 saying the church building was illegal and posed “serious safety risks.” Local residents counter that the building had been cited by the local government as a model project when it was completed last year.
“From what they discussed during negotiations, the point isn’t about the illegal construction, but about the cross,” said a local Christian leader, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. He has been staying in the church since Thursday with around 3,000 other Christians, some of whom have come from neighboring churches to help guard the building.
“Some top officials believe that there are too many crosses, too many churches," he said, "and in every county, they asked for a few crosses to be destroyed, not all of them."
But a local government official, who was not authorized to speak by name to the media, said authorities were trying to resolve the impasse peacefully and had never threatened to demolish the structures by force. "We've asked them to leave out of concern for their own safety, but some local followers still slept inside the building," he said. "The government is still negotiating with the people to figure out how to handle this smoothly."
China’s constitution recognizes freedom of religion, but the government limits religious practice to officially-approved places of worship.
“This certainly represents a further escalation against religious freedom in China,” said Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid.
A 2010 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences put the numbers of Christians in China at over 23 million. But scholars believe the real number is considerably higher, as many belong to Protestant “house churches,” which are considered illegal by the authorities and often face harassment or even arrest.
Religious activities are also heavily restricted in ethnic minority areas, among Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, in the name of security, while practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement have faced intimidation, harassment and arrest, Human Rights Watch says.