Wenzhou, China, is known as the “Jerusalem of the East” because of its large Christian population, a population that had, until recently, enjoyed worship at the Sanjiang Church. This massive, 85,000-square feet structure in this coastal city took over 12 years to build and was a site of pilgrimage for Chinese Catholics.
The $5 million Sanjiang Church, dominating the city skyline with soaring spires, high ceilings and stained glass was finished in 2013. Recently, however, the Chinese government, which had previously lauded the structure’s architecture, deemed the structure “illegal,” claiming the construction was “four times the size” the building permit allowed, and demolished the “entire building” on orders of the Chinese Communist Party.
The government cited “bribery” on the part of at least 5 officials as the “reason” for the church’s demolition. Activists, though, say the demolition was part of a “campaign against Christians” throughout Zhejiang province, and claim a “dozen” more churches in the area face demolition. The demolition ended a month-long “standoff” between parishioners and authorities.
Hundreds of worshipers launched a campaign to save the building from the wrecking ball. “You have no idea how hard it was for us to build that church,” said parishioner Yu Xinwei. The construction came after a twelve-year campaign to fund the church, and donations came from all over the world.
ChinaAid, an organization focused on persecution of Christians and based in Texas, said the church was “brought down” after comments by a Communist Party provincial secretary, Xia Baolong, who complained crosses atop steeples were “too conspicuous and too flashy.”
Religion is closely “regulated” in China. Renmin University anthropologist Cao Nanlai said, “Wenzhou people are very well-known for their entrepreneurial spirit, and they express their Christianity through real estate. There have been other churches demolished but this one is the largest.”
Wenzhou’s Sanjiang church became a “symbol of resistance” to the Communist Party’s “draconian” religious policies in early April. Thousands of Christians formed a human shield around the place of worship after plans to demolish it were announced, but the building was eventually leveled.
Christians accuse Communist Party leaders in Zhejiang province of attempting to slow their faith’s rapid growth by destroying churches deemed too “conspicuous”. Chinese officials claim this was not a case of persecution of Christians, but rather an attempt to assess and remove any illegal structures, including “factories and Buddhist temples.”
The authorities’ behavior is reminiscent of the “smashing of church property during the Cultural Revolution,” another member of the city’s Catholic community told UCA News’s Chinese-language service.
The “campaign” to save the church involved congregants and pastors holding “sit-ins” around the clock. Church leaders led the congregation on a “march” gathering in front the church, while a “prayer vigil” took place inside.
Police set up “roadblocks” at the scene. Uniformed police and plainclothes security agents were present, according to several church members. “We are not seeking a violent confrontation,” said a protester who identified herself as a Christian from neighboring Longgang township. “We are holding a peaceful sit-in, praying to God for help.”
While crackdowns on unauthorized “home churches” are fairly common on the mainland, the Sanjiang church, which worshipers said cost 30 million yuan (HK$37 million), was “government” approved, operating under the auspices of the “Three-Self Patriotic” (TSP) Church.
According to the Wenzhou government website, Sanjiang church was designated a “model project.” Members of the Sanjiang congregation believe their church was targeted after Xia Baolong , the Zhejiang party secretary, visited the region and was troubled by the size of the building – “an eight-story structure covering more than 1,000 square meters.”
By Friday afternoon, several church pastors had reached a verbal agreement with local authorities to tear down a “teaching” annex but save the main building, which is topped with a large cross.
Some pastors opposed the agreement. “The main building and the annex are integrated for a reason,” said one of the pastors, who refused to give his name, fearing reprisal. “We are also concerned about the lack of a written agreement”.
The stand-off came amid signs of a wider “crackdown” on churches in Wenzhou, an affluent city in southeast Zhejiang. Local churchgoers said similar “demolition notices” were sent to churches in three other Zhejiang townships – Taishun , Wencheng and Ruian.
A churchgoer from Yuyao township in Hangzhou said officials were targeting churches in the region – “especially those with prominent religious symbols, such as crosses.”
“They said the holy cross was built too high and violated the building code,” said Timothy Liao, a priest from Wenzhou. “But why only target churches when many buildings violate height limits? Clearly, this is a pretext to tear down churches.”
About 1,800 people attend regular services at Sanjiang. The number was expected to rise to as many as 4,000 once the planned expansion of the church was completed.
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