Thousands of Christians in Wenzhou, China, have mounted a vigil around their local church in order to protect it from demolition. One would naturally expect a church building in China to be demolished if it belonged to the illegal house-church movement. However, in this case, the church is part of the Three-Self Movement, and was built with permission from local authorities.
According to the Telegraph,
Their 24-hour guard began earlier this week when a demolition notice was plastered onto the newly-constructed church which worshippers say cost around 30 million yuan (£2.91 million) and almost six years to build.
Officials claimed the church had been built illegally and used red paint to daub the words: “Demolish” and “Illegal construction” onto its towering facade.
The threat triggered a furious reaction in Wenzhou, a booming port city known for its vibrant Christian community, said to be China’s largest …
Parishioners believe their church was targeted after Xia Baolong, the provincial Party chief, visited the region and was unimpressed by the prominence of a church built to house thousands of worshippers.
“His behaviour is illegal. He has abused his power. The construction of the church is not against the law,” said Wang Jianfeng, a 47-year-old man from a nearby congregation who was among hundreds of people gathered on the steps outside on Friday in a show of force …
The dispute over Sanjiang has highlighted the ongoing difficulties facing China’s fast growing Christian community. In 1949, when the Communist Party took over, it boasted around one million members. Today, there are thought to be more Chinese Christians than Communist Party members, with up to 100 million mainland believers, according to some estimates.
Officially, the Three-Self Movement is called the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”. Three-Self Churches have this name because they seek to avoid the three “evils” of “imperialistic” western churches–foreign control, foreign money, and foreign missionaries. While the initial establishment of the Three-Self movement was an effort to find a way for churches to be allowed to operate openly in Communist China, the movement was quickly subverted. It is now overseen directly by the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since Christianity is thought of as a harmful superstition, the official goals of the movement, as promulgated by the CCP, are to bring Christians in China under the supervision of the CCP and to slowly wean them from the Christian faith, bringing their thinking in line with communist orthodoxy. Ideally, according to the thinking of party officials, the Three-Self Movement would dwindle down to nothing as the hardcore believers died off and as others are discouraged from attending.
Bibles are allowed in Three-Self Churches. However, not everyone agrees that the Bible translation used in Three-Self Churches is correct, and there is a dire shortage of sound discipleship and training materials. In principle, sermons and training materials are subject to party censorship, and must be in agreement with teachings that the communist authorities have decided to allow. Any kind of evangelism is officially forbidden. There is also tight government surveillance of pastors and church members. CCP cadres who become church members are automatically expelled from the party and may face other disciplinary actions, and church members can find themselves subject to persecution, even though they attend a legal church.
Despite the efforts of the CCP to control the Three-Self Movement, there is a strong relationship between the Three-Self Movement and the illegal house-church movement. Many Three-Self pastors and church workers are de facto leaders of the house churches. There is also the sense among many people in the CCP that in some cases the Three-Self Movement has gotten out of control, and is no longer fulfilling the goals the party has for it. This is no doubt the root of the current conflict in Wenzhou.