Chinese authorities demolished a church in northern China this week, the second in less than a month, ahead of new regulations on religion due to come into force on 1 February.
Explosives were set off inside the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, Shanxi province on Tuesday (9 January). According to AP, citing the state-run Global Times newspaper, it was demolished because it did not have the necessary permits.
Police prevented church members and onlookers from approaching the site, and heavy machinery was used to take the building apart, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, which published footage of the demolition on its YouTube channel (embedded below).
A pastor from a nearby church told the Guardian: “My heart was sad to see this demolition and now I worry about more churches being demolished, even my own. This church was built in 2008; there’s no reason for them to destroy it now.”
A local source told World Watch Monitor that the order seems to have come from the top, illustrated by the fact the state-run newspaper reported on it. In his speech at the Communist Party Congress in October, President Xi Jinping reiterated the importance of Chinese nationalism, saying the government would “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”.
At the end of last year, on 20 December, a Catholic church in the neighbouring province of Shaanxi was also demolished, with no explanation given, though the church had been built in line with regulations almost 20 years ago. The church’s cross was also destroyed, and items from the church, including liturgical objects, taken away.
A Protestant church in the north-western Xinjiang region has also been shut down, according to Catholic news site UCAN.
The Golden Lampstand Church, a well-known Protestant church with a congregation of more than 50,000, was built on farmland given by a local Christian around ten years ago. The cost, of nearly 3 million US dollars, was funded by the congregation, according to AP. The church was not part of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and had had several clashes with the government because it had no legal status.
The local source told World Watch Monitor that in 2009 a violent confrontation took place during which hundreds of thugs, believed to have been hired by security forces, attacked church members and destroyed property. Church leaders were jailed for “illegally occupying farmland and disturbing traffic order by getting together”, AP reported. Church leader Yang Rongly, who started the church with her husband Wang Xiaoguang in 1992, was released in 2016, but has been under police surveillance ever since, according to NGO ChinaAid.
With nearly 100 million Christians, the Church is the largest social force in China not controlled by the Communist Party, and the new religious regulations are seen by some as a tightening of its control on Christians. But others have said the main focus is curbing the rise of Islamic extremism. Muslims, especially in Xinjiang, have also experienced increased pressure from the authorities.
Most Chinese Christians meet not in the registered, state-sanctioned churches, but in “underground” churches.
Observers say that it is this “uncontrolled growth of Christianity” that the government sees as a threat, and they warn that China’s thriving underground churches can therefore expect a backlash.
World Watch Monitor has reported cases of Christian leaders who disappeared, were imprisoned and tortured, or harassed. Between 2013 and 2015 over 1,200 crosses were pulled down from churches in the prosperous eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, where there is a strong Christian presence.
China is 42nd on the newly released Open Doors 2018 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.