WUXI VILLAGE, China (AP) — The battle started when a government-hired crew tore down the metal cross atop the one-room church in this village surrounded by rice paddies last month.
The next day, a church member used his own welding torch to put it back. He was promptly detained and questioned for 10 hours on the charge of operating a welding business without a license.
A week later, the crew came back to remove the cross. Once again, church members put it back up, now tattered and a little shorter.
The church in the eastern village of Wuxi, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) south of Shanghai, has had its water and electricity cut off. Officials have attempted to install surveillance cameras and inquired about several church members’ work and their children’s schooling – a veiled threat that jobs and education might be at risk. But the congregation is not giving up.
“I won’t let them take down the cross even if it means they would shoot me dead,” said Fan Liang’an, 73, whose grandfather helped build the church in 1924.
Across Zhejiang province, which hugs China’s rocky southeastern coast, authorities have toppled – or threatened to topple – crosses at more than 130 churches. In a few cases, the government has even razed sanctuaries.
Authorities say the churches in question had violated building codes, even though they generally won’t specify which ones. They also deny that they are specifically targeting churches, and point to the demolition of other tens of thousands of other buildings, religious and non-religious, that have apparently broken regulations.
But experts and church leaders in Zhejiang, the only province where the incidents are happening, believe there is a campaign to repress Christianity, which has grown so rapidly as to alarm the atheist Communist government.
It comes at a time when Beijing has been tightening ideological controls, placing more restrictions on journalists, rights lawyers – many of whom are Christians – and political activists since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013.
The incidents speak to the power of symbols, and the emotions they evoke.
“The cross is the glory of us Christians,” said Cai Tingxu, who left his cosmetics shop in Shanghai to protect his hometown church in rural Zhejiang after hearing authorities warned they would tear down the cross. “Jesus was nailed to the cross for us. My heart ached to learn that the government wants to remove the cross.”
Estimates on the numbers of Christians in China vary widely because the government does not count religious affiliation. Official 2010 figures put them at 23 million. These are registered members of the state-sanctioned churches, which are closely monitored by the government.
But China also has vast numbers of underground believers who meet in secret. The Pew Research Center estimated there were 58 million Protestants in China in 2011, along with 9 million Catholics in the year before. Other experts say there could be more than 100 million.
These estimates are up from the widely accepted figure of 1 million Christians in 1950, and may even rival the size of the 85 million-member Communist Party.
The church’s dramatic growth – and Christians’ loyalty to God above all else – has alarmed authorities, said Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University sociologist and leading expert on religious matters in China.
Although Chinese Christians are generally apolitical, their weekly gatherings and mutual support could prove dangerous if the movement adopts political objectives, he said. The church is “resilient in resisting government pressures and persecutions.”
A possible reason Zhejiang province has come under scrutiny is that it is home to Wenzhou, a city of 8 million that has so many churches dotting its streets and hillsides that it is called “China’s Jerusalem.”
More than a tenth of Wenzhou’s residents are Protestant Christians – some fourth-generation believers – the highest proportion of any major Chinese city, according to Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist who has studied and written a book about Christianity in Wenzhou. The high percentage is largely due to early missionary efforts and the city’s relative isolation, nestled between the sea and mountains. Half the province’s 4,000 churches are located here.
The city is known for its entrepreneurial vigor, and has tens of thousands of family-run workshops making shoes, toys, furniture and other products. The believers here appear to have applied that same eagerness to starting new churches, Cao said.
For years, the city’s Christians had close relationships with local authorities, and many believers, ironically, are also members of the ostensibly atheist Communist Party or hold civil servant jobs, he said.
City officials even encouraged churches to build big as a way to draw attention and investment from Chinese Christians abroad, and some churches appeared to compete to build the largest sanctuaries and tallest crosses – including one that stands 63 meters (200 feet) tall.
But late last year, authorities began asking churches not to light up their crosses at night. The reason given was to help reduce carbon emissions, pastors and church members in the city say. The orders appeared to be coming from the provincial government, but were carried out by city officials.
Then in April, the local government in Yongjia county suddenly demanded that an unapproved portion of a large church be torn down – even though officials had tacitly allowed the church to build five times the approved square footage. Decades of unbridled development and onerous red tape has made it the norm to build before obtaining pages of approval stamps from myriad government agencies.
Despite protests from the congregation and supporters, demolition crews tore down the entire structure, and the hillside where it was located is now covered in tree saplings.
Since then, rooftop crosses at many churches along major roads in and around Wenzhou have been removed, and vaguely-worded notices against unspecified illegal structures have been delivered to churches in outlying areas. Cao, the scholar on Christianity, said the cross removals and demolitions reflected the occasional flexing of political muscle by authorities to show who’s in control.
Pastors and church elders say government workers have told them in private that the goal is to remove the crosses. Officials have promised they will stay away from churches if the symbols are removed but have threatened those who resist with demolition.
“This is clearly discrimination against our religion and to crack down on our belief,” said Wang Yunxian, a church elder in Wenzhou.
Yang, the Purdue professor, said it was difficult to imagine what sort of building codes the crosses would violate.
“The only reason I can think of is that the Zhejiang authorities intend to humiliate Christians by taking down the symbol sacred to them,” he said. The campaign could be tacitly approved by Beijing, which has not interfered publicly, or it might merely be a political gamble by the provincial leadership to win praises, he said.
A senior Zhejiang government official insisted that authorities weren’t targeting churches, “but only structures in violation of codes.
“Those with ulterior motives are singling out churches, but we also have torn down temples and nunneries, and we have strictly followed the law in removing illegal structures,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t permitted to speak on the record to the media.
In Yongjia county, the government says it has demolished thousands of illegal structures totaling 3 million square meters, including businesses, residences and religious sites.
Some churches have taken steps to protect their crosses.
Cai, the man who left his cosmetics shop in Shanghai, now takes turns with other members to guard Yayu Christian Church in Yaxia village around the clock. They are camped out on a balcony overlooking an expanse of ripening rice paddies to spot any demolition crew coming down the road.
Early one morning, watchers spotted a truck approaching and quickly mobilized about 100 people to block the men from coming up the steps to the sanctuary, successfully thwarting them, Cai said.
In nearby Zengshan village, after church members received a government warning in early July to remove its cross, members piled up rocks in front of the main gate and dumped a couple of sheds behind it. It also raised banners urging the authorities to respect Chinese law on religious freedom and proper procedures for demolition.
“The cross is our life, and there is no room for compromise,” said Pastor Xie Zuokua. “With no other means, we are resorting to our own abilities to defend the cross.”
To Xie, it’s clear this is more than just a matter of building code violations.
“It’s the symbol of the death of Jesus and it’s the symbol that people can be saved,” he said. “So if they want to come and tear down the cross – that’s because they are discriminating against us Christians.”
Associated Press producer Aritz Parra contributed to this report.