Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Mostly in Zhejiang province Chinese authorities have been trying to bring the 60 million Christians under state control, and took down between 1,200 and 1,700 crosses from churches, sometimes causing violent clashes. Journalist Ian Johnson investigated for the New York Times the current state of the government action.

Ian Johnson:

Several clergy members in the region said they were under pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist Party. Some churches, for example, have begun extolling Mr. Xi’s campaign to promote “core socialist values” — a slogan meant to offer a secular belief system that bolsters the party’s legitimacy.

Other churches have begun displaying their building permits, implicitly endorsing the government’s authority to approve or reject church construction, including crosses.

“We have to show that we are loyal Christians,” said an employee of the historic Chengxi Church in Wenzhou, “or else we could face trouble.”

In February, a prominent lawyer was shown on state television confessing to having colluded with foreign forces, especially American organizations, to stir up local Christians. The lawyer, Zhang Kai, had been in Zhejiang providing legal advice to churches that opposed the removal of their crosses.

Unregistered churches appear vulnerable, too. In December, the police detained several members of the unregistered Living Stone church in southern China’s Guizhou Province after they refused to join a government-run Protestant church. The pastor was later arrested on charges of “divulging state secrets.”

“It’s easy for them to fabricate a crime and accuse you,” said the pastor of a large unregistered church in Wenzhou. “We have to be very careful.”

Many worshipers in Shuitou are eager to keep their heads low, in hopes that the storm will blow over.

One Sunday last month, about 300 people attended services at the Salvation Church, women sitting on the left side and men on the right — a reflection of traditional views toward worship. In the front of the church, above a big red cross, were six big characters that read: “Holiness to the Lord.”

Most of the people there were in their 50s or 60s, in part because many of the younger worshipers were boycotting Sunday services to protest the church’s decision to comply with the government’s order to remove the cross.

They have begun attending services on Thursdays instead, to mark the day of the week the cross came down. They used to participate in the church’s Bible study groups, but now study independently. Some wonder if they and others may stop worshiping in registered churches entirely and go underground.

A senior church leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he and others had agreed to take down the cross because they feared the church would be demolished if they did not. People were on the verge of losing their jobs, he added, and church elders felt they had no choice but to call on parishioners to give in.

“More than three decades ago, we didn’t even have a church,” he said. “Persecution in church history has never stopped. All we can do is pray.”

More in the New York Times.

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