A church stands beside a busy highway in the southern Chinese city of Wenzhou, its steeple shrouded in construction tarp. Its cross is gone, unceremoniously removed. A short distance away another church, a gleaming new structure only barely finished, has been reduced by wrecking equipment to a crater of rubble in another hillside. Police stand in the pouring rain to keep visitors from driving down the road that passes by.
Across Zhejiang, the Chinese province where Wenzhou is located, Christians have counted at least 100 churches forced to make alterations, knock down wings or remove crosses in recent months. It is the most visible evidence of a renewed Chinese effort to restrict the spread of religion, and particularly Christianity, which had until recently flourished over a decade that saw China soften its enforcement of rules that outlaw anything that officially sanctioned worship.
The changes are visible across China, with Christians being detained, publishers facing sudden restrictions on printing new Christian books and rising concern among those whose faith is again placing them at renewed risk in a country often criticized for religiously-motivated human rights violations.
"It's very worrisome," said Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, a Texas-based group that advocates for Christian rights in China. Mr. Fu, who helped human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng leave China, said he has seen official documents that suggest the Chinese central government sees an imperative to, as he put it, "contain the rapid growth of Christianity, or religion."
China is home to one of the world's fastest-growing populations of Christians – 67 million in 2010 (or 5 per cent of the population, compared with 18 per cent for Buddhism), according to the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project. At the time of the Communist revolution in 1949, there were an estimated four million Christians. At its current rate of expansion, China may one day be home to more Christians than any other nation.
"Underground" churches and seminaries – so-called because they are unofficial and operate in a legal grey zone – have in recent years flourished in plain sight, some occupying large office buildings and welcoming parishioners by the many hundreds.
But the past year has seen China clamp down on free speech and lock up hundreds of prominent online critics and human rights lawyers. That effort is now expanding to religion, in a campaign that now threatens a much larger segment of the country's population.
In May, Zhang Chunxian, the Communist Party chief in China's far western Xinjiang territory, pledged "strengthened management of religious affairs in accordance with the law," according the state-run Xinhua news agency. Those remarks were seen as opening a round of new crackdowns on Muslims in that region. However, it has become clear that they also gave voice to a broader effort to regulate religion nation-wide.
Many attribute the changes to Xi Jinping, who has waged a broad battle since becoming president a year ago on any force he sees as potentially threatening to the rule of the Communist Party.
"We can see that the new central government is really much more controlling," said Max, a former pastor who asked to be identified only by his English first name for fear of repercussions as he remains an active Christian outreach worker.
Across China, in the clusters of tiny house churches that always operate with the fear of official displeasure, there are signs of a much farther-reaching campaign. Twice this year, police broke into meetings between members of the Beijing-based Holy Love Fellowship home church and hauled people away on charges of gathering illegally. Thirteen were taken in January and another seven in March 1, each for a month.
The January group included Holy Love Fellowship pastor Xu Yonghai. "We were detained in the Number 1 Detention House," typically reserved for criminals on life or commuted death sentences, he said in an interview.
Other new restrictions have also quietly arisen. According to three sources, including an executive at a publishing company, publishers of Christian books in China also have encountered tough new challenges in obtaining ISBN codes that allow them to print new titles, a method of impeding publication of Christian material. Such a restriction, emanating from central authorities, suggests the crackdown is not regional, but national in nature, the executive said.
The most intense activity has been reserved for Zhejiang province, and the area around Wenzhou, a thriving trading city with churches more than a century old that has been called China's "Jerusalem." The most prominent was the recent demolition of the Sanjiang, or Three Rivers, church – a massive structure that authorities had said was built much bigger than approved. The church had earlier been held up local authorities as a "model project."
The demolition happened despite the best efforts of congregants to protest and stop it. Keep protesting and "your shop will be shut down," a local storeowner said she was warned. "If you have a son or daughter who is working here, their job will be suspended." The storeowner spoke in a back room, for fear of being seen speaking with a foreign journalist.
On the day Sanjiang was demolished, the storeowner could see its dismemberment from her front window. "The last crash of the church was not so loud. It was quite a soft sound," she recalled. The congregation had raised over $5-million to build the church.
"So much money – it was not an easy thing to build a church," the storeowner said. "And demolished in a day." Two other churches in the area have also been taken down, amid rising anger among local believers.
Chinese authorities deny staging a crackdown. "The Chinese government earnestly protects the lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens, including safeguarding the freedom of their religious belief," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei said recently. In Zhejiang, he said, "the demolition took place because those structures were built against relevant regulations. It has nothing to do with religious belief."
Christianity arrived in China as early as the seventh century, and Jesuits arrived in the 17th century. But Communist China has long had an uncomfortable relationship with those who believe in a power higher than the General Secretary. Though the Communist Party officially recognized five religions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism, Buddhism and Islam – Mao Zedong once famously told the Dalai Lama that "religion is poison" in part because "it neglects material progress."
Religion was made illegal during the Cultural Revolution, when the Communist Party drove out foreign missionaries and turned church buildings into factories. Churches weren't allowed back into the open until the reform and opening up in the late 1970s, and gradually gained in size and strength. Recent years have seen increased liberties, with many church leaders saying security forces have paid less attention to them until recently.
In Wenzhou, the crackdown has grown personal. Zhao, a pastor there who asked that only his surname be used, recently vented his anger on Chinese social media with a long letter addressed to corrupt local officials demanding compensation for what he called the "illegal" act of tearing down churches and crosses. "And we don't want you to use taxpayer money for compensation," he wrote. "We want you to sell your own houses and watches."