Officials in the Zhejiang province county of Yongjia on Wednesday announced plans to punish five government bureaucrats, accusing them of a breach of duty for failing to stop the construction of the Sanjiang Church, which was demolished Monday in Wenzhou.
The local police detained one suspect, arrested another and have investigated three more who worked in local land and planning departments, Zhejiang Daily reported.
Dai Xiaoyong, the deputy governor of the county, said that the his government requested the church’s demolition in December last year, as part of a provincial crackdown on illegal buildings. The church leaders said they were only given 15 days’ notice of the demolition in March.
Officials have said the church violated building codes, but some see the move to destroy it as a crackdown on Christians in the area.
Dai said the accused employees, who work in the bureau of land and resources and the bureau of planning for the Wenzhou suburb of Oubei, failed to act once it became clear that the church’s construction violated building codes, even though they knew the construction was illegal.
After negotiating with the county upon receiving the demolition notice, church leaders agreed to demolish at least some of the church buildings themselves on April 3, Dai said. But they did not.
On April 7, the next date the church leaders gave for the building’s destruction, a crowd of worshippers formed to protest the demolition, and it was once again preserved.
The US non-profit Christian group Chinaaid reported that the church and the Wenzhou government had made an agreement to demolish only two floors of an auxiliary building.
But two weeks later, on April 21, large groups of government employees arrived at the church with heavy duty demolition vehicles. Thousands of Christians again travelled to the church to guard it.
The entire church was finally demolished on April 28, as paramilitary police dispersed worshippers trying to protect it.
The official action sparked heated online discussion, as internet users left hundreds of comments and questions on Weibo. “Why did the local government target one church? What about other banks, malls and offices buildings which the officials know about and do not do anything about them?” some wrote.
Some of the worshipers, who started a campaign to save the church, implied that they had been tricked. They said the church leaders in early April had reached a verbal agreement with local authorities to tear down a teaching annex but save the main building.
The church leaders said that the church had all appropriate government approvals, and operated under the auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Church.
Sanjiang church was designated a “model project” last September. It cost 30 million yuan (HK$37 million) to build. Many worshipers believe the church was targeted after Xia Baolong, the Zhejiang party secretary, visited the region and was troubled by the size of the building: an eight-storey structure covering more than 1,000 square metres.
However, the local officials insisted the church was approved to be built to a size of 880 square metres. In reality, the main building and its annex occupied 7,928 square metres. There was also a 3,076 square-metre basement and parking lot.