By Jeremy Reynalds
WENZHOU, CHINA (ANS) — Purple and yellow petunias greeted those ascending the steps of the Flowered Plain village church. Inside, men sat in the pews on the right, just like usual, while women, some carrying grandsons and granddaughters, occupied the left and center.
However, while something extraordinary had occurred just up the road, according to a story by Julie Makinen for the LA Times, when it came time for the sermon, Pastor Ye Sen did not refer directly to what had happened six days earlier.
After a tense, weeks-long standoff, government wrecking crews had torn down the massive Three Rivers, or Sanjiang, Protestant church.
Ye’s Scripture from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, emphasized the need for Christians to stick together amid adversity. “Stand firm in one spirit,” reads one verse, “contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.”
Others were more direct than the Flowered Plain pastor. According to a story by Tom Phillips for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, some Chinese Christians reacted angrily as they saw photographs showing the demolished church.
“They have gone too far. Countless worshipers are shedding tears of sorrow tonight,” one Protestant leader from Wenzhou said after virtually the entire church structure came crashing down. “It is outrageous and utterly unjust.”
Chen Yilu, the head of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, spoke out against what he called the government’s “crude and hard-line” handling of the situation. The church’s demolition would damage the Communist Party’s image and harm “social stability,” the Telegraph said he predicted.
The Zhejiang Daily defended the demolition, claiming church leaders had been given the chance to demolish “illegal” parts of the building themselves, but had “failed to live up to their commitment.”
Congregants had “spread online rumors” about the church’s destruction and “incited illegal gatherings inside this illegal building,” the Telegraph said it claimed. The propaganda official claimed the demolition was part of a wider campaign against “illegal constructions.” More than 43 million square feet of illegal structures had so far been torn down, “including factories and Buddhist temples.”
The destruction of Sanjiang church, which had taken years to build and was designed to hold several thousand worshipers, showed authorities were “treating everyone equally,” the official added.
Former missionary to China Anthony Bollback and editor of the China Clippings wrote, “No one knows at this moment whether this signals a new wave of persecution even against registered churches, but the terrible effect of the action is shown in the picture taken after the demolition.”
He added, “House churches of the area have been harassed for years and have suffered severe persecution and restrictions, but this is the first time the registered church has been affected.” Bollback asked for prayer for congregational members as they try to “recover from this tremendous blow.”
There was some unease, the LA Times reported, among the Flowered Plain attendees. “You must be careful whom you talk to,” cautioned two women from a Beijing-based religious publication in town to investigate the demolition. “There could be government spies among the people here.”
A giant, red billboard stands at the highway turnoff for Pudong village, home to Three Rivers Church. Erected by the Yongjia County government, it declares in yellow characters, “Demolition With Fairness, Demolition With Righteousness, Illegal Structures Must Be Demolished.”
On one Monday, more than a dozen policemen in white helmets guarded the road, allowing only residents to pass.An officer on duty explained, “There is something sensitive here.” As for how long access would be restricted, the LA Times reported he said, “A few months.”
Sensitivities are likely to last longer. Five local bureaucrats have been singled out for punishment, charged with failing to stop construction of a church they knew was to be much larger than building permits allowed.
According to the LA Times, authorities say the church is just one of many illegal structures ensnared in their “Rectify Three, Demolish One” campaign intended to halt violation of building regulations. Signs in Wenzhou tout the campaign as a move to “make space for development.”
But among the numerous local Christians who say it was a pity to tear down the building, a few thought the government had given its owners many chances. “The government was very reasonable,” said a woman at the Chang Ao village market, near Three Rivers, who said she wasn’t a Christian.
She added, “There were too many people there – thousands! They were staying there all night, chanting and singing. If they had just listened to the government earlier, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Authorities, she added, had told church leaders not to build an annex, and to lower the cross. Instead, she said, they built it higher. “It was just too obvious a building,” she said. “If it were two or three stories, the government wouldn’t say anything, but the base alone was two stories.”
The LA Times said Three Rivers leaders could not be reached for comment. A Christian resident of Chang Ao, though, said church members balked at certain demands from the government, particularly that they remove the cross from its spire.
As much as the building’s size, the cross apparently shocked the recently appointed provincial party secretary when he visited the area last year. “It was very grand, and it had a big cross, and he did not feel very comfortable,” said Zheng, who added that other local churches have been told to lower or remove their crosses.
But another prominent Wenzhou Christian, a businessman with the last name of Cai who runs a shoe materials company, was skeptical that the government was singling out Christians. “The government doesn’t care what religion you are,” he said, “just whether you pay your taxes, follow the rules, use clean energy and what-not.”
China’s Constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, and the state recognizes five religions, including Protestantism, but it restricts how groups can organize and practice. Churches are expected to fall under the umbrella of government patriotic religious associations, as did Three Rivers, though “house churches” have spread quite openly.
Authorities, though, the LA Times said, take a dim view of charismatic sects, especially those with any overseas connections. Falun Gong, for example, a spiritual movement with roots in Buddhism and Taoism and whose leader lives in the U.S., was banned as an evil cult in 1999.
A taxi driver from Yongjia County who stopped to pick up passengers at the park said the demolition of Three Rivers reflected concern by local officials that Wenzhou churches could pose a threat to authorities. “The government fears another group like Falun Gong,” said the driver, who goes by the nickname A-Hai.
The LA Times said he added, “They had a thousand or more people at that church, and the believers there, they handled things really poorly.”
Zheng Leguo, a pastor who left Wenzhou in 2010 and now lives in Orange County, said Christian business owners with whom he maintains connections are nervous that authorities might target them in other ways. “There are tax rules, fire code violations, building codes – even many big, famous Chinese business leaders have landed in prison” on the basis of such violations, he said. “People know that they can easily be taken out, so they are worried.”
Wenzhou Christians, the LA Times said he insisted, pose no threat to the Communist Party. “We want to coexist with them; we pose no threat to them,” he said. “Our followers pray for the government.”
Caption: The Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city in Zhejiang province with one of China’s largest Christian populations, was reduced to rubble.