Religious affairs authorities in Wenzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, on Wednesday denied recent accusations that Christian churches in the city had been ordered to dismantle buildings or take down crosses.
Claims about demolition orders have circulated in the local Christian community and on social media since late March, as the province has been carrying out a campaign to demolish illegal buildings at religious sites in an effort to rectify the "unsustainable growth pattern" of Christianity.
According to Christians familiar with the matter, at least five churches in Zhejiang Province have received orders to either bulldoze their buildings or remove crosses. Four of them are in Wenzhou, which has over 1 million Christians among its 9 million population, a relatively high proportion in China. The city has been dubbed the "Jerusalem of the East" in some Western media reports.
According to local Christians, some other churches in Zhejiang were ordered to make their crosses less conspicuous by turning off their lights at night.
"There is no such thing," an official with the Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs of Wenzhou, who declined to reveal his name, told the Global Times via phone on Wednesday.
The provincial committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM) could not be reached for comment.
TSPM is a key official umbrella organization for Protestantism in China, in contrast to the underground, or "house" church movement.
The incident seized wide attention when the new Protestant Sanjiang Church in Yongjia county, also administrated by Wenzhou, was ordered to be dismantled. The local government had also reportedly asked the church to dismantle its cross, which it said was too large.
Sanjiang Church cost more than 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) and construction has been ongoing for three years.
The official from the Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs of Wenzhou said the decision was made by the government only because it was an illegal structure and posed safety risks.
According to a statement published by Yongjia county publicity department on Saturday, according to the government-approved construction plan, the church could cover an area of 1,881 square meters. However, the current church is over 7,000 square meters, almost quadruple the permitted size.
On Friday, a Global Times reporter saw the Chinese characters for "demolish" and "illegal building" painted in red on the outer walls of Sanjiang Church as thousands of Christians gathered in front of the church to protect it from being torn down, the second day large crowds had shown up.
Following the standoff, the local government and church leaders reached an agreement on Friday. The church was asked to dismantle five stories of its seven-story annex as a result of the negotiation.
A man surnamed Li, who is in charge of a church in Dingqiao county in Haining, Zhejiang Province, told the Global Times that authorities had ordered their church, completed last December, to take down its cross earlier this month.
"We haven't yet received the official notice in black and white, but relevant authorities have talked to our local 'two councils,' ordering us to dismantle the cross," he said, referring to Haining's committees of TSPM and China Christian Council (CCC).
According to official regulations, religious groups need to apply to their local bureau of ethnic and religious affairs for approval to build a church. They must present a list of documents about the status of believers and preachers and the feasibility of building a church.
A planning committee then needs to be formed, and after a church is built, it will need to be registered again with local authorities.
When asked if the building of their church had followed official procedures, Li said, "We haven't finished all the paperwork. Everyone knows that when it comes to religious constructions, 10 years might not be enough to finish all the red tape, so we built and applied at the same time."
Many local governments had acquiesced to such churches being built.
This common practice was challenged when Zhejiang started a broad campaign last year to revise and demolish illegal buildings, which is now in full swing. Called the "Three Revise and One Demolition" campaign, it also targets illegal buildings at religious sites.
According to the website of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of Zhejiang Province, Feng Zhili, the committee's chairman, in February asked local committees of TSPM and CCC to support the campaign.
Feng named a few "deep-rooted problems" in Christianity's development in Zhejiang, noting its growth is excessive and extensive. The official also said the way it converts people has caused social friction, and it lacks religious confidence, in an allusion to external influences.
The campaign will help Christianity improve its development model and build an image of "modesty, tolerance, inclusiveness and openness," he noted.