The cross of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Xiaoshan was removed last July. A Chinese bishop said the cross-removal campaign was not part of a national policy. (Photo supplied)
(UCAN Series: Best of 2016)
An ongoing campaign in which thousands of crosses have been removed in Zhejiang province is not national policy, according to the head bishop of China's state-approved church, denying it represented religious persecution.
Bishop Joseph Fang Xinyao, chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told Hong Kong's I-Cable TV on the sidelines of major political meetings in Beijing that Zhejiang's Christians and state officials should "sit down and discuss" the campaign in which 1,700 crosses have been removed since late 2013.
"I think this will resolve the conflicts," he said outside meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) in Beijing.
His comments provoked angry responses from Chinese Christians on social media.
"Does a Catholic member of the CPPCC represent the church or the government? If he represents the church, why he does not speak for it? Well, I think if he did so, he would likely have been thrown in jail already and would not be attending meetings in Beijing," said Xu Rongxin, a Protestant, in comments on China's Twitter equivalent Weibo, referencing the Christians who have been detained for opposing cross removals in Zhejiang.
Xia Baolong, the provincial party secretary held accountable by local Christians for the campaign, did not answer journalists' questions during the National People's Congress (NPC) meeting, according to I-Cable TV.
Media reports suggest Communist Party authorities have banned journalists from covering 21 sensitive topics including the cross-removal campaign during ongoing meetings of the NPC and CPPCC — known in China as the "two meetings."
Bishop Fang is one of nine Catholic members of the CPPCC during its current five-year cycle ending in 2017. Three of the other eight members are illicit bishops who have not been recognized by the Vatican.
CPPCC representatives are currently reading over as-yet undisclosed revisions to China's Regulations on Religious Affairs as part of changes expected to be enacted by the end of 2016, according to the state-run China Daily.
CPPCC delegates have pitched the revisions as an improved legal safeguard for faith groups. The draft reportedly includes provisions that would grant legal-person status to religious venues thereby allowing churches and temples to hold bank accounts and be better protected in disputes.
But there are fears the legal changes will attempt to bring China's religious groups further in line with party ideology.
"I believe the provision will help different religions to better adapt to China's socialist system," said Fu Xianwei, chairman of the China Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-approved Protestant Church.
President Xi Jinping was expected to oversee a major meeting on religious policy at the end of last year but this has been repeatedly delayed, prompting observers to speculate that China's government may be unsure on how to proceed with managing faith groups.
Although it is believed that Zhejiang's provincial authorities are responsible for the cross-removal campaign, after more than two years there are few signs the central government wants the policy to end.
At least 49 crosses have been removed in Zhejiang province so far this year, U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid reported on March 8.
Published March 11, 2016