Leo Lewis Beijing
Last updated at 12:01AM, April 29 2014
Demolition crews descended on a huge unsanctioned church in eastern China yesterday, defying weeks of public protest and stoking fears that Beijing has launched an undeclared war on the rise of Christian worship.
Images of the crumbling walls of Sanjiang church began emerging on Chinese social media sites yestedsy as police protected the heavy machinery in case of protest as it pounded much of the building to rubble.
It remains unclear how much of the church is to be knocked down, and some religious groups say that at least four floors of the church’s annex building had been knocked down by the end of last week.
Activists told The Times that in the days before the destruction began, key members of the congregation had been threatened by the authorities and told to abandon their attempts to protect the church from the wrecking equipment. Earlier this month, parts of the the Sanjiang church, along with others in the region, were daubed with the Chinese character for “demolish” – a word that has been synonymous with the country’s rapid urbanisation and of the destruction of rural homes throughout the land.
The 50m high Sanjiang church, completed only last year and built in a part of the country known as “China’s Jerusalem”, has one of the country’s largest congregations: it was constructed with donations amounting to more than £2 million.
Confronted with the vast new edifice – and in particular its large exterior crosses visible from across the eastern city of Wenzhou – the authorities said that the building had failed to meet structural safety standards. It was claimed that in its planning application the church indicated that the building would be around a third of the size it actually turned out to be. As recently as last September, however, the church had been proudly designated a “model project” by the authorities.
Although the church is registered, it is not part of the officially sanctioned Protestant church in China – a version of the faith which allows itself to be overseen by the Communist Party. Many Chinese who object to that oversight prefer to worship in underground “house churches” that are regularly the target of government crackdowns.
But church sources believe that Beijing is now gearing-up for a far more substantial campaign against the rapid growth of Christian worship in China – a faith that state media recently said was “booming in capitalist fashion”.