Official downplays number of churches demolished in Zhejiang

Demolition campaign director says only a tiny fraction was targeted, while urban development authority says religious buildings spanning a total area of 130 hectares were razed or altered

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 5:29pm

Amid concerns there was an ongoing crackdown on churches, the Zhejiang government came out with figures showing that religious buildings constituted only a tiny fraction of those demolished or modified in a campaign against illegal properties.

A campaign director said that as of the end of July, only 0.26 per cent of all altered or demolished buildings were for religious purposes.

Of that already miniscule figure, 2.3 per cent were Protestant buildings, the Today Morning Express in Hangzhou, Zhejiang’s capital, reported.

So far, 225 million square metres worth of illegal buildings have been torn down, while 269 million square metres of old structures have been refurbished, the Express said, citing the director.

An official at the Zhejiang Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development said religious structures that were torn down or altered spanned an area of 1.3 million square metres, the state-run China Daily reported. The rest were homes and factories, it said.

According to local pastors in Wenzhou, known as China’s Jerusalem for its large Christian population, at least three churches were demolished and more than 160 crosses were removed in the past seven months.

A local pastor in Wenzhou told the South China Morning Post that his house church was the only one targeted among other “illegal buildings” in the neighbourhood.

The pastor, who did not want to reveal his name due to fears of retribution by local authorities, admitted that his house church, located in the city centre of Wenzhou, had built a balcony against regulations. But he said his house was not the only one.

“There are a row of illegal balconies, but they only picked on us,” he said. “The officials told me that if I wanted to keep my balcony, I needed to stop holding [religious] gatherings.”

Many of the churches targeted in Wenzhou were state-sanctioned ones led by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches and the China Christian Council, which normally avoid the type of harassment authorities reserve for so-called “underground” churches.

The committees of the Three-Self movement in both Wenzhou and Zhejiang could not be reached for comment.

The provincial government of Zhejiang said on its website that it launched the “three rectifications and one demolition” campaign last year to improve cities’ landscapes and urban planning, as well as “push economic development”.

The three-year campaign requires old residential areas, old factories and “urban villages” (pockets of rural settlements surrounded by rapidly expanding cities) to be renovated. It also calls for the demolition of illegal structures.

The campaign has been effected “with fairness and justice. … No matter what background [the building has], we tear down what should be torn down, with no exceptions and no sparing of feelings,” the campaign director was quoted as saying.

On April 23, the Zhejiang chapters of the Three-Self movement and the Christian Council in an open letter urged believers to “obey the government” and react “rationally, harmoniously” to the campaign in order to “establish a good image for Protestantism and … maintain stability”.