Raising China's Christian Faith
John Newton FAITH MAGAZINE July - August
The dire plight of Christians in the Middle East has regularly hit the headlines in recent months. The often unreported plight of Christians in China, however, is also extremely grave, as Dr John Newton of Aid to the Church in Need now explains.
“The Chinese government has intensified the persecution [of Christians] recently. We have seen demolished churches, crosses taken away from the buildings, so there’s not much we can hope for immediately. The Church is still enslaved to the government.” This was the message Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the former bishop of Hong Kong, had for Aid to the Church in Need, when he spoke with the Catholic charity last November. The most visible form of persecution over the past 18 months has been the targeting of churches in China’s Zhejiang province and in particular those in its coastal city of Wenzhou.
The story goes that the latest campaign against the Church started when local Communist Party secretary Xia Baolong said Wenzhou City’s skyline had “too many crosses”. Whatever the truth of the story, by November 2014 more than 420 churches in the province had had their crosses pulled down – and numerous churches had been threatened with demolition orders. In a number of cases buildings were wholly or partly destroyed.1
Wenzhou’s Christians have become the subject of a campaign to restrict public displays of faith as Communist officials reasserted the party’s foundational Marxist philosophy. Wenzhou is no doubt an embarrassment in a country where religious belief is still frowned upon – as according to Chinese state media an eighth of the city’s eight million residents are Christian, earning it the nickname of “China’s Jerusalem”.
Yet the campaign to pull down churches has met with considerable resistance. In April 2014 thousands of Christians belonging to Wenzhou’s Sanjiang church kept a round-the-clock watch to stop their church building being demolished.2 The Church was part of the Chinese government’s official Protestant umbrella organisation – The Three-Self Patriotic Movement – making the targeting of the building all the more surprising. But in recent years even official state sanction has not protected Christian groups. In 2010 property developers in Shandong province were given formal approval to knock down a 19th-century church built by Anglican missionaries – despite it being part of The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and designated as a protected national historical landmark.
Among other complaints, authorities in Wenzhou alleged that Sanjiang church, which cost more than £3m to build, was structurally unsound. No evidence for this was produced, although there had been protests by folk religionists that the building was out of harmony with the surrounding area’s feng shui. The stand-off between Church members and the authorities ended in April 2014 with the structure, which had only been finished in December 2013, being razed. Gao Ying, vice-president of the official Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, said: “The Sanjiang Church was a legal and registered congregation. I think they deserved a better outcome.”3
Officially the demolition programme has been part of a three-year plan in Zhejiang province called “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” that encouraged authorities to pull down illegal structures that violated planning and zoning laws. A guidance document listed seven types of building that should be torn down – six of which were explicitly religious, including “minor places of worship and minor convents that accumulate wealth in the name of religion”!
In March 2015 eight Christians who protested over the demolition of Sanjiang church, were sentenced to custodial prison sentences after pleading guilty to charges of “illegal occupation of farmland” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”. Church members suggested that the defendants had been coerced into entering a guilty plea.
While these problems plague registered churches, unregistered congregations often face worse problems. Throughout 2013 dozens of Protestant house churches were shut down when they refused to come under the authority of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and hostility to them continues. Underground Catholic communities fare little better. In late March 2015 police seized two priests in Mutanjiang – Fr Shaoyun Quan, 41, and Fr Jianyou Cao, 43 – who had just celebrated Mass for underground Catholic communities. After their arrest they were taken to an unknown location. At the time of writing no information was known about the priests’ whereabouts.4
Attempts to cow China’s Christian communities continue to be unsuccessful. When a small church in Wuxi village had its cross removed, a member of the congregation used his welding torch to put it back up. Authorities subsequently detained him, questioning him for 10 hours on the suspicion that he was running a welding business without a licence. The Church has since had its water and electricity cut off and officials have made inquiries about several church members with their places of work – which has been interpreted as an attempt to intimidate worshippers. But the Church is resilient: “I won’t let them take down the cross even if it means they would shoot me dead,” said 73-year-old Fan Liang’an, whose grandfather helped build the church in 1924.5 And that strength of faith is why Christianity is continuing to grow in China.
Dr John Newton works for Aid to the Church in Need, whose help for the Catholic Church in China includes training for seminarians, providing children’s Bibles and helping oppressed priests with Mass stipends.
1D Bernardo Cervellera, “As more than 400 crosses are destroyed in Zhejiang, violence spreads to Henan, Shandong, and Anhui”, Asia News, 23/12/14.
2Tom Philips, “Christians form human shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat”, Daily Telegraph, 04/04/14.
3Ian Johnson, “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire”, International New York Times, 29/05/14.
4Bernardo Cervellera, “Chinese police seize two priests in Mutanjiang”, Asia News, 03/22/15.
5Associated Press, “As government tears down church crosses, Chinese Christians rise to defend their symbol”, Fox News (online), 28/07/14 (www.foxnews.com/world/2014/07/28/as-government-tears-down-church-crosses-chinese-christians-rise-to-defend-their)