To Western eyes, the scene was unimaginable: A church steeple barely visible above roiling clouds of smoke following a massive explosion, with excavators soon sent in to decimate what remained of one of the biggest churches in China.
An act of terrorism, perhaps?
Sadly, no: The demolition was officially sanctioned, part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s widening crackdown against Christian churches.
Earlier this month, China’s paramilitary “People’s Armed Police” moved in, took over the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province — home to over 50,000 Christian worshippers — and packed its underground worship hall with explosives.
Several city blocks were cloaked in a pall of smoke from the blast. When the smoke cleared, authorities sent in the growling excavators to finish leveling the church, which was built with over $2 million in local donations in one of China’s poorest regions.
The officially atheistic Chinese Communist Party had tolerated the church for years. But Golden Lampstand apparently got caught on the wrong side of Xi’s campaign to eliminate any rival influences. A 20-year-old Catholic church in Shaanxi province was demolished as well.
Critics say the wanton destruction is part of “a national effort to regulate spiritual life in China,” The New York Times reports.
The Golden Lampstand Church’s sad demise forebodes troubled times for China’s Christians. Already, they are bracing themselves for mounting government scrutiny, arrests, and the very real possibility of imprisonment, torture, and even death.
One reason for heightened concern: The party’s draconian new “Regulations on Religious Affairs” law, which takes effect Feb. 1. Observers worry that tightening the regulatory noose could provide the pretext for a new round of persecution. According to the Catholic News Service, in November officials in China’s eastern Jiangxi Province “replaced religious images displayed by Christian families with portraits of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping.”
According to an official government statement, the Christians involved had “recognized their mistakes and decided not to entrust to Jesus but to the (Communist) Party.” It claimed Christians voluntarily removed 624 religious images and posted 453 portraits of Xi.
In its 2017 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom once again named China as “a country of particular concern” based on its persecution of religion, continuing an annual designation that dates back to 1999.
According to the report, “As China’s President Xi Jinping further consolidated power, conditions for freedom of religion or belief and related human rights continued to decline. Authorities target anyone considered a threat to the state, including religious believers.”
Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, told Deutsche Welle: “The dynamiting of the church recently seems to be a prelude to the new wave of crackdowns under the new regulations…These Christians will be pressed to join the party-state sanctioned ‘patriotic’ associations. Their connections with Christians outside mainland China will be restricted and penalized if they continue.”
Why the hostility toward religion? According to the book “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” which I co-authored, China’s dictators are keenly aware that Pope John Paul II’s Christian leadership played an important role in the fall of the Soviet Union.
In an allusion to King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2, Chinese authorities warned: “If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.”
It’s no accident China’s current efforts to strangle Christianity in its infancy come as the United States makes its pivot toward Asia. China’s rapid military expansion, and its intensifying persecution of Christians, both reflect its obsession with power and control.
China only officially permits five religions to operate within the country: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism — called “Three-Self Churches” — and Catholicism. Roman Catholicism is not among the officially sanctioned and regulated religions.
But many Christian believers say they do not find the spiritual nourishment they seek within the Three-Self Churches or Registered Catholic fold. For decades, Chinese officials looked the other way as people formed small private Bible studies that met in their homes. Over the years, some of these, including the Golden Lampstand Church, have blossomed into full-blown mega-churches. Analysts now say about half of China’s practicing Christians worship outside of the strictly regulated, state-authorized system.
According to a 2011 Pew study Global Christianity, China’s Christians may already outnumber its Communist Party members, estimated at about 90 million. Prof. Yang predicts China will have 160 million Christians by 2025.
Surely this puts the literal fear of God in the Old Guard Communists who still control the Chinese military.
There may be more painful days ahead for China’s millions of Christians. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently announced that countering China and Russia have surpassed terrorism as the No. 1 focus of the U.S. military, calling them “nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”
The enormous and growing Christian presence on China’s home front, and a formidable U.S. military gathering on China’s horizon, clearly are not being taken lightly by Xi and his comrades.
In a sense, China is waging a two-front war: one spiritual, the other temporal. By demolishing the Golden Lampstand Church, China appears to have won a battle in that conflict.
But history suggests a much greater battle — the war of the spirit — has yet to be decided.