Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire
WENZHOU, China — For nearly a year, the Sanjiang Church was the pride of this city’s growing Christian population. A landmark in the fast-developing northern suburbs, its 180-foot spire rose dramatically against a rocky promontory. Wenzhou, called “China’s Jerusalem” for the churches dotting the cityscape, was known for its relaxed ties between church and state, and local officials lauded the church as a model project.
Late last month, however, the government ordered it torn down, saying it violated zoning regulations. After fruitless negotiations and a failed effort by the congregation to occupy the church, on April 28 backhoes and bulldozers knocked down the walls and sent the spire toppling to the ground.
“People are stunned,” said one member of the congregation, who asked that she be identified only by her English name, Mabel, out of fear of government reprisals. “They have completely lost faith in the local religious authorities.”
This urban area of nine million in eastern China, nestled between rugged mountains and a jagged coastline, has moved to the center of a national battle with a Communist Party increasingly suspicious of Christianity and the Western values it represents. Since March, at least a dozen other churches across Zhejiang Province have been told to remove their crosses or have received demolition orders, a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of China’s fastest-growing religion.
The government has defended its actions, saying the churches violated zoning restrictions. However, an internal government document reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.
The nine-page provincial policy statement says the government aims to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities, but it specifies only one religion, Christianity, and one symbol, crosses.