Chinese authorities are ramping up their persecution of Christian churches in response to what they perceive as an emerging threat to the communist regime, according to reports.
Public security officials in recent days forcibly removed crosses from two churches in the southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang, the New York Times reported. Authorities have now issued orders to demolish more than 100 churches in the province—most of them state-approved, as opposed to the illegal underground communities suppressed by officials.
Additionally, government officials have disrupted services, confiscated and destroyed church property, and in some cases detained members in the capital in Beijing, the eastern coastal province of Shandong, and the autonomous Xinjiang region in the northwest.
At the Wenling Church in the coastal city of Taizhou, congregants told the Times that as many as 4,000 officers removed two crosses from the building on Friday and detained as many as 40 people—while most of the members sang hymns.
"Some wore police uniforms, with helmets and shields, some were plainclothes police and some wore red armbands—just like the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution," one congregant said.
While some of the church members have not resisted the authorities, other clashes have turned violent. Fourteen members of the Wenzhou-based Salvation Church in Zhejiang province were seriously injured last week when paramilitary police broke through a wall of congregants at the door and beat them.
Chinese authorities claim that the churches violate zoning laws. However, an internal government document obtained by the Times earlier this year suggested that officials should cite "illegal construction" as a cover to avoid international scrutiny.
"This is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism," the paper said.
Renee Xia, international director for the activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), said in an email that the government’s appeal to zoning regulations rings hollow.
"Nobody has any illusions that citing zoning law is nothing but looking for an excuse for the current wave of clamping down on Christian churches," she said. "This is one example of the government's sophisticated management of international opinion. There are other examples, such as using the crime of ‘disturbing public order’ to persecute rights activists."
Chinese officials appear to be acting on concerns that the growing Christian movement could soon rival the influence of the 86 million members of the Communist Party. A 2011 Pew Research report estimated that China has 67 million Christians, about 5 percent of its population.
Xia said the confrontation between the party and Christians "has been going on for decades and will continue."
"The number does matter, but more importantly, the authoritarian police state cannot possibly tolerate a faith that preaches dissent from the regime's one-party rule," she said. "As the new President Xi Jinping re-asserted the Communist Party's absolute rule and is reining in any potential threat, religious persecution of Christians and others (Tibetan Buddhism, Muslims in Xinjiang, Falun Gong, etc.) is likely to escalate."
Pastor Bob Fu, founder and president of the organization ChinaAid that promotes religious freedom in China and works with house church leaders there, said in an email that Chinese officials have been the aggressors in the conflict.
"The conflict is not invited though by the peaceful churches," he said. "Remember there are no church-organized resistant forces inside China such as the Poland Solidarity movement during the Communist time. Almost all of the churches, both government-sanctioned and independent House churches are very apolitical and extremely peaceful."
Fu, a former house church leader himself before he was imprisoned and fled from China in 1996, has been raising awareness about the case of imprisoned Pastor Zhang Shaojie. Shaojie was sentenced to 12 years in jail this month in the central province of Henan on charges of fraud and gathering crowds to disturb public order.
Fu recently helped Zhang’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter secure asylum in the United States and escape from China, where authorities were reportedly harassing his family and blocking them from leaving.
The U.S. State Department raised a number of concerns about China in its annual international religious freedom report, released Monday. The report said that in addition to Christians, Chinese officials persecuted Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, and Muslim Uighurs.
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, said on Monday that he was aware of the reports of Chinese authorities toppling crosses from churches.
"There have been cases like that, and we’re aware of the most recent one that you just mentioned and absolutely are concerned about it," he said in response to a question from a reporter. "People should have a right to express their religious beliefs, and that’s a value that we will continue to stand up for, even in cases of countries like China, where we have broad and complex relationships."
The Chinese government’s campaign against churches comes amid a wider crackdown on dissent by President Jinping. Activists have condemned the Communist Party’s detention of dissidents and use of involuntary psychiatric confinement.