WUXI VILLAGE, China – The battle started when a government-hired crew tore down the metal cross atop the one-room church in this village last month.
The next day, a church member used his own welding torch to put it back. He promptly was detained and questioned for 10 hours on the charge of operating a welding business without a license.
A week later, the crew came back to remove the cross. Once again, church members put the cross, now tattered and a little shorter, back up.
The church in the eastern village of Wuxi, about 300 miles south of Shanghai, has had its water and electricity cut off. Officials have attempted to install surveillance cameras. They also inquired about several church members’ work and their children’s schooling – a veiled threat that jobs and education might be at risk. But the congregation is not giving up.
“I won’t let them take down the cross even if it means they would shoot me dead,” said Fan Liang’an, 73, whose grandfather helped build the church in 1924.
Across Zhejiang province, which hugs China’s rocky southeastern coast, authorities have toppled – or threatened to topple – crosses at more than 130 churches. In a few cases, the government even has razed sanctuaries.
Authorities said the churches in question had violated building codes, even though they generally won’t specify which ones. They also deny that they are specifically targeting churches, and point to the demolition of other tens of thousands of other buildings, religious and nonreligious, that apparently have broken regulations.
But experts and church leaders in Zhejiang, the only province where the incidents are happening, believe there is a campaign to repress Christianity, which has grown so rapidly as to alarm the atheist Communist government.
It comes at a time when Beijing has been tightening ideological controls, placing more restrictions on journalists, human-rights lawyers – many of whom are Christians – and political activists since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013.
The incidents speak to the power of symbols, and the emotions they evoke.
“The cross is the glory of us Christians,” said Cai Tingxu, who left his cosmetics shop in Shanghai to protect his hometown church in rural Zhejiang after hearing authorities warned they would tear down the cross. “Jesus was nailed to the cross for us. My heart ached to learn that the government wants to remove the cross.”
Estimates on the numbers of Christians in China vary widely because the government does not count religious affiliation. Official 2010 figures put them at 23 million. Those are the registered members of the state-sanctioned churches, which closely are monitored by the government.
But China also has vast numbers of underground believers who meet in secret. The Pew Research Center estimated there were 58 million Protestants in China in 2011, along with 9 million Catholics in the year before. Other experts said there could be more than 100 million.
These estimates are up from the widely accepted figure of 1 million Christians in 1950, and might even rival the size of the 85 million-member Communist Party.
The church’s dramatic growth – and Christians’ loyalty to God above all else – has alarmed authorities, said Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University sociologist and leading expert on religious matters in China.
Although Chinese Christians generally are apolitical, their weekly gatherings and mutual support could prove dangerous if the movement adopts political objectives, he said. The church is “resilient in resisting government pressures and persecutions.”
A possible reason Zhejiang province has come under scrutiny is that it is home to Wenzhou, a city of 8 million that has so many churches dotting its streets and hillsides that it is called “China’s Jerusalem.”
More than a tenth of Wenzhou’s residents are Protestants – some fourth-generation believers – the highest proportion of any major Chinese city, said Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist who has studied and written a book about Christianity in Wenzhou. The high percentage is due to early missionary efforts and the city’s relative isolation, nestled between the sea and mountains. Half the province’s 4,000 churches are here.
The city also is known for its entrepreneurial vigor, and has tens of thousands of family-run workshops making shoes, toys, furniture and other products. The believers here appear to have applied that same eagerness to starting new churches, Cao said.
For years, the city’s Christians had close ties with local officials. Ironically, many believers also are members of the ostensibly atheist Communist Party or hold civil servant jobs, he said.
City officials even encouraged churches to build big as a way to draw attention and investment from Chinese Christians abroad, and some churches appeared to compete to build the largest sanctuaries and tallest crosses – including one that stands 200 feet tall.
But late last year, authorities began asking churches not to light up their crosses at night. The reason given was to help reduce carbon emissions, pastors and church members in the city said. The orders appeared to be coming from the provincial government, but were carried out by city officials.
Then in April, the local government in Yongjia county suddenly demanded that an unapproved portion of a large church be torn down – even though officials tacitly had allowed the church to build five times the approved square footage. Decades of unbridled development and onerous red tape has made it the norm to build before obtaining pages of approval stamps from myriad government agencies.
Despite protests from the congregation and supporters, demolition crews tore down the entire structure, and the hillside where it was now is covered with tree saplings.
Since then, rooftop crosses at many churches along major roads in and around Wenzhou have been removed, and vaguely worded notices against unspecified illegal structures have been delivered to churches in outlying areas. Cao, the scholar on Christianity, said the cross removals and demolitions reflected the occasional flexing of political muscle by authorities to show who’s in control.
Pastors and church elders said government workers have told them in private that the goal is to remove the crosses. Officials have promised they will stay away from churches if the symbols are removed but have threatened those who resist with demolition.
“This is clearly discrimination against our religion and to crack down on our belief,” said Wang Yunxian, a church elder in Wenzhou.