However, late Monday, reports emerged from China that the massive worship building was completely demolished.
The Sanjiang Church garnered international attention, according to the Daily Telegraph, when the Chinese city of Wenzhou threatened to demolish the large church, which has over a thousand members and occupies 100,000 square feet of land.
Open Doors China coordinator Xiao Yun explains that Wenzhou, like many Chinese cities, has a lot of registered and unregistered house churches. These days, it is very common to build illegally or partially illegally in China. In this case, the church received permission to build a church on 20,000 square feet, but their building expanded to 100,000 square feet.
The local government turned a blind eye and even called it a “model project.” In 2013, however, the provincial government implemented a policy to reconstruct or demolish any old or illegal constructions. This far-reaching policy applied to all sorts of buildings, and not only churches. The Sanjiang Church was on this list of illegal constructions.
In November, when the authorities gave the church a three-month ultimatum, church members began 24-hour shifts surrounding and guarding the church. The government was not happy and threatened other Christians, saying that if they supported the Sanjiang Church, their churches would also be demolished.
The Open Doors report noted that the settlement reached involved removing the top two floors from the annex building behind the church while the authorities agreed not to demolish the church or the cross. In other words, the area occupied by the church buildings remains virtually unchanged.
Yet, with the pictures of a complete demolition surfacing on Twitter and in news outlets April 28, there is confusion about the government’s intent, the nature of the settlement, and what it means for Christians, persecution, and religious freedom in China.
“It shows us there is always more than meets the eye”, explains Yun. “Again, unfortunately for the Christians, the authorities have solid ground to tear the church down if they want to enforce the law. It is very common that Chinese officials do not want to be seen as incapable by their seniors, and they try to avoid making trouble. We heard about a number of conflicts between churches and the authorities, and eventually they compromised and saved faces to each other. ‘Saving faces’ in Chinese culture is more important than abiding the law. To summarize: the conflict between the church and the local government had to do with the violation of regulations and the way the government dealt with it. It was not a clash between the ideological enemies, ‘communists,’ and Christians, but rather two parties who couldn’t save face.”
As for what unfolded with the demolition, Yun says, “Firstly, instead of two floors, four floors were demolished. The exact reason was unknown to us. What became clear very soon was that both the government and the church are not handling this case very well. This led to the local government losing even more face. Now it seems the entire building has been destroyed and several arrests have been made. The most-likely reason is that local officials are afraid of being seen as weak. Besides, there are more churches on the list of illegal constructions. Unfortunately for the Sanjiang congregation, the authorities couldn’t let them get away with this. It is a shame that this beautiful building was destroyed. At the same time, we received reports that two smaller churches in the same province were also demolished. The regional and local government are enforcing the policy to tackle illegal constructions.”
It appears the Sanjiang facility isn’t the first to be demolished, nor will it be the last. China Aid, a partner with Voice of the Martyrs USA, said that Baiquan Church in the city of Zhoushan was also razed, and three other buildings were “rectified,” on April 24.
This story is still unfolding. We will keep you updated as details emerge.