BEIJING – Two days before Christmas, members of a rural Christian congregation in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou welded some pieces of metal into a cross and hoisted it onto the top of their worship hall to replace one that was forcibly removed in October.
Within an hour, township officials and uniformed men barged onto the church ground and tore down the new cross.
“They keep a very close watch on us, and there is nothing we can do,” said a church official. “The situation is not good, as any attempt to re-erect the cross will be stopped.”
That means that the worshippers in Wenzhou, like many Christians in the eastern province of Zhejiang, will worship this Christmas under a cross-less roof. Provincial authorities have toppled crosses from more than 400 churches, and even razed some worship halls in a provincewide crackdown on building-code violations.
Many Christians say their faith has been singled out because authorities, wary of its rapid growth, are seeking to curb its spread in a campaign that has targeted China’s most thriving Christian communities.
Estimates for the number of Christians in China range from the official figure of 23 million to as many as 100 million by independent scholars, raising the possibility that Christians rival in size the Communist Party’s 85 million members.One university in northwestern China banned Christmas, making its students watch propaganda films instead, state media said Thursday.
Beijing News said the Modern College of Northwest University, located in Xian, had strung up banners reading, “Strive to be outstanding sons and daughters of China, oppose kitsch Western holidays” and “Resist the expansion of Western culture.”
A student told the newspaper that they would be punished if they did not attend a mandatory three-hour screening of propaganda films, with teachers standing guard to stop people from leaving.
An official microblog belonging to one of the university’s Communist Party’s committees posted comments calling for students not to “fawn on foreigners” and pay more attention to China’s holidays, like the Spring Festival.
“In recent years, more and more Chinese have started to attach importance to Western festivals,” it wrote. “In their eyes, the West is more developed than China, and they think that their holidays are more elegant than ours, even that Western festivals are very fashionable and China’s traditional festivals are old-fashioned.”
Western culture, particularly U.S. pop culture, is wildly popular with young educated Chinese, which occasionally causes discomfort for the generally quite conservative Communist Party.
In August, Beijing rounded up Christian pastors and religious scholars in a national seminar with the edict that the Christian faith must “adapt to China,” a euphemism for obeying party rule.
This week, authorities in the city of Wenzhou — known as China’s Jerusalem because it has half of the province’s 4,000 churches — banned all Christmas celebrations in kindergartens and grade schools.
Resistance by local Christians has led to violent protests, bloody clashes and arrests of pastors and churchgoers. At least two people — one pastor and one churchgoer — remain in police custody for their acts to defend the cross, said Zhang Kai, a Christian rights lawyer.