Both sinners and saints in Wenzhou church row
Bureaucracy that takes years to process scores of permits for one building would test the patience of a saint. Rules can be bent or broken as people begin building before receiving permits. Indeed, several church leaders in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, say this is why their buildings violate urban planning and land resources regulations. But they insist that their designs are common practice in Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem" for its many houses of worship.
This goes to the heart of the conflict over what the provincial government says is a campaign to promote economic development by removing older and illegal properties. Church leaders and overseas human rights groups say it is a crackdown on Christianity, with some expressing fears it could spread.
The setting for this rift between the authorities and government-sanctioned protestant congregations is the city's Christian community of one million out of eight million legal residents and more than 2,000 churches. Local pastors say that in the past seven months at least three churches have been demolished and more than 160 crosses, including some at Catholic churches, taken down because they exceeded the size allowed by local government. The newly built 30 million yuan (HK$37.4 million) Sanjiang Church in Yongjia county was torn down in April because the authorities said it was five times its authorised size and lacked some permits. The campaign came to a head last month in Pingyang county, south of Wenzhou, in violence involving local Christians, with 60 people injured when about 600 police and demolition workers tried to remove a cross from the officially sanctioned Jiuentang church.
Saints and sinners are to be found on both sides of this issue. For example, Wenzhou's authorised church congregations have reflected worldly rather than spiritual values by competing to build the most palatial churches. This is not surprising given that religious institutions have grown rich on the rising wealth of Chinese people. But as mainlanders increasingly turn to religion to fill the spiritual vacuum that wealth and materialism cannot provide, Christians must put such rivalry aside and be more united in the spiritual belief that binds them in defence of their right to worship within the confines of the law. At the same time, while the authorities are right to rein in illegal building activity of any kind, they should pay heed to the demand for enough land for legal construction and show some sensitivity in enforcing the law in a delicate area.