One of the largest churches in the Chinese coastal city of Wenzhou, an 85,000-square-foot edifice with soaring cathedral ceilings, stained glass and spires dominating the landscape, was demolished Monday on orders of Communist Party authorities.
Chinese officials said the demolition of the $5-million Sanjiang Church was ordered because the church was four times the size for which the building had been permitted. However, activists say it is part of a campaign against churches taking place throughout Zhejiang province.
The demolition ended a monthlong standoff between authorities and parishioners, who had been staging a vigil to protect their church.
"Everybody was crying," said a 25-year-old churchgoer who gave her name as Yu Xinwei. She watched the demolition Monday with other worshipers from behind the police barricades that girded the church. "You have no idea how hard it was for us to build that church. It took 12 years. We couldn't even dare pray for a miracle to reverse the course."
As many as a dozen churches in Zhejiang province, where Wenzhou is located, have received orders for demolition or to remove their crosses, according to activists.
ChinaAid, a Texas-based rights organization focusing on persecution of Christians, reported that the campaign against the churches was led by a provincial party secretary, Xia Baolong, who complained that crosses were "too conspicuous and too flashy.''
One of the most prosperous cities in China, Wenzhou is sometimes nicknamed "China's Jerusalem," according to Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist at Beijing's Renmin University who recently published a book about the city's Christians.
"Wenzhou people are very well-known for their entrepreneurial spirit and they express their Christianity through real estate," said Cao. "There have been other churches demolished, but this one is the largest."
Religion is closely regulated in China. But unlike other churches that ran into trouble with authorities, Sanjiang was part of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China's only state-sanctioned Protestant church.
Officials from Yongjia county told local media Tuesday that the church was demolished because it was built four times larger than the permit it received and in addition had a large underground parking lot.