ucanews.com reporter, Beijing
Updated: August 18, 2015 10:28 PM GMT
This image taken in April 2014 shows a Christian church in the town of Oubei, outside the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. Chinese authorities began demolishing the Church that month after a weeks-long standoff between worshippers and the local government. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP)
When Chinese authorities tried to remove the cross atop Huzhen Church in Zhejiang province in May, the result was a public relations disaster for the government. Angry Christians took to social media to post the same image over again: a cross burning as the culprits, “evil” officials, dangled it from a crane.
The government response last month was not only weeks late, it was cited on social media and Christian news sites as barely plausible.
“The cross on top of the Huzhen Church is dangerously close to the lightning rod. The cross contains electrical wiring bulbs,” stated a report in the state-run Zhejiang Daily, reprinted in the English-language Global Times. The report concluded that the cross had caught fire by itself.
As Zhejiang intensifies a cross-removal campaign, government efforts to justify its actions face being drowned out by a growing chorus of disapproval in and outside of China.
More than 1,200 crosses have now been removed. The campaign has accelerated over the last few months and in turn prompted resistance that has grown louder and bolder. Late last month, Christians in Zhejiang began a “safe and non-violent disobedience movement” making crosses out of wood at home.
“Tomorrow you will see crosses everywhere in Zhejiang,” said Father Chen, a teacher at Sichuan Catholic Seminary, one of numerous posts on Weibo advertising the campaign.
Meanwhile, 22 Christian protesters camped out on the roof of their church in Ya village, Huzhou, among the most daring among the growing Christian protests.
Catholic and Protestant groups have in recent weeks issued strongly worded statements condemning the government, each new message apparently emboldening the next.
In an open letter on July 27, Bishop Zhu Weifang of Wenzhou urged “Chinese Catholics and people with a sense of justice not to remain silent but to shout together”.
In response, officials have threatened clergy and laymen with prison terms unless they keep quiet, a Christian lawyer said on condition of anonymity. “People are scared but determined not to be silenced,” said the lawyer.
Recognizing “some feelings of estrangement”, party officials in the city of Wenzhou have tried to meet with clergy, sending out propaganda teams to hold seminars justifying the cross removal campaign, according to China Nationalities Newspaper.
This has coincided with a series of articles in Zhejiang’s state-run Chinese language press arguing that no religion should be outside the law. Authorities have said that all buildings — whether Christian, Buddhist or otherwise — will be removed if they violate building codes.
But the government’s message collapses when it removes crosses from churches that are wholly state-approved, says Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.
“As far as I can tell, the propaganda is not working, especially in Zhejiang province,” he says.
More worrying for the Chinese government: Overseas groups are teaming up with Christians in Zhejiang. U.S.-based China Aid used the Rock the Desert annual Christian music festival in Midland, Texas this month to launch their Chinese cross campaign, an extension of the one started a few weeks earlier in Zhejiang.
Attending Christians decorated a red cross and posted pictures on Facebook and Instagram with China Aid enlisting the support of Midland Mayor Jerry Morales.
Word of Christian persecution in Zhejiang appears to be spreading in the U.S., including among lawmakers in Washington D.C.
Last month, the Republican presidential candidate and senator, Marco Rubio, led a congressional hearing on Chinese religious persecution, which heard recommendations that included placing a religious rights official in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. China Aid Founder and Director Bob Fu also called on the U.S. State Department to issue a public statement condemning “the large, brutal, shameful campaign” in Zhejiang.
U.S. officials directly confronted Chinese counterparts in Washington during last week’s bilateral rights dialogue, the first since the Zhejiang campaign began at the end of 2013.
“We talked about religious freedom, and in that discussion we raised our concerns about the government’s recent campaign to remove crosses and demolish Christian churches in Zhejiang province and other regions,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
China’s English language press has increasingly found itself defending the Zhejiang campaign in recent weeks, in an apparent bid to deflect overseas condemnation. The Global Times has printed four articles on Zhejiang since the start of July, more than the coverage the state-run paper dedicated to the issue over the first half of this year.
But Beijing’s message is falling on deaf ears overseas, says Fenggang of Purdue University, mainly because its argument that Christian structures are treated the same as other buildings is clearly untrue: no other groups are complaining.
“This is a very soft, unpersuasive justification,” he says.
China’s worsening rights environment — including religious freedoms — is expected to be raised prominently when President Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House for the first time next month, according to U.S. officials.
The Chinese government is also expected to face difficult questions over its controversial cross-removal campaign from the United Nations by the end of the year.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, told ucanews.com in April he would compile and submit formal questions to Beijing demanding answers. The government would then have 60 days to respond.
Research into the church demolition and cross-removal campaign has started at his small office in the Bavarian city of Erlangen. But with just a few staff, the issue has fallen behind other pressing cases, Bielefeldt admitted this week.
“Unfortunately, things have been slower than I would have wished but it’s not forgotten,” he told ucanews.com by telephone. “I promise we will take action.”
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