Render unto Caesar — Party leaders persecute churches even as they try to co-opt them

The Economist
Date: Jul 25th 2015

THE Communist Party is struggling to manage the only cult in China bigger than itself—the Christian church. All down the country’s eastern seaboard it is hard to find a village that does not boast a spire or tower topped with a cross. To some in the party, this is a provocation, especially in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang around the coastal city of Wenzhou. Over the past 18 months, party leaders have ordered the demolition of such crosses. But this month the provincial branches of the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Protestant Christian Council—two of the government bodies that administer the official churches allowed in China—each issued an open letter to provincial officials condemning the demolitions.

The letters accuse the party of violating its own commitment to the rule of law. They add that the incidents have damaged the Communist Party’s image at home and abroad. It is, says Yang Fenggang of Purdue University in Indiana, the first time that leaders of official churches have come out openly on the side of ordinary believers against the Communist Party.

Normally it is “house churches”—unofficial congregations meeting in homes or rented office space—that bear the brunt of official persecution. But, according to the Protestant letter, there are many official churches among the 1,200 it says have had their crosses removed. Some churches have even been demolished.

Zhejiang’s party chief is known for his hostility to Christianity. But Christians wonder whether the onslaught against their churches, which began in earnest in 2014, with a new wave this year, is being directed from Beijing. Xi Jinping, the Communist Party’s general secretary, visited the province in May. “I think it is hard to imagine that this second wave is happening without his approval,” says Mr Yang. A centrally directed campaign would be in step with other attacks on civil society around the country. In recent weeks several hundred human-rights lawyers and other activists have been rounded up.

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