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China pulls noose tighter on religious freedom

HONG KONG (SE): The first cross for this year was removed from a Catholic church in Wenzhou diocese, Zhejiang, before dawn on February 25, just two weeks after the director of the provincial office of State Administration of Religious Affairs, Feng Zhili, put out a call for religious stability in the run up to the G20 Summit set to be held in the provincial capital of Hangzhou from September 4 to 5.

The church belongs to the unofficial Catholic community in Yongqiang parish. Referred to as the Zhuangyuan Church, UCAN reported that a meeting of parishioners was called on the previous evening as a warning had been received that their church cross had been put on the chopping block.

“The person in charge of the Church did not inform the parish priest about the removal this time, possibly because government officials threatened him to keep quiet,” a Church worker from the unofficial community told UCAN. “When the priest realised the situation from others, he called a meeting immediately.”

Parishioners resisted attempts to remove the cross on a previous occasion last year, but did not have time to organise themselves this time.

“The Chinese New Year ended on February 22. So everyone is back at work, including the religious officials and demolition workers,” the Catholic Evangelisation Group posted on WeChat social media.

Parishioners at another Catholic parish, Bajia Church, believe their cross may be on the demolition list too, as they were informed that the water would be cut off on February 24.

However, in a conciliatory move prior to the G20, authorities said that no more crosses would be removed from churches in the city of Hangzhou prior to the gathering.

A priest from the capital said, “Even if there are cross removals, they (authorities) said they would seek approval from the diocese first. But I am not certain the authorities will really stop removing crosses as policy often changes.”

At the Protestant Dongtian Church, in the city of Rui’an in Zhejiang, the cross was once again removed by the authorities just prior the new year holidays, Radio Free Asia reported on February 23.

A parishioner told the American-funded broadcaster that it has been removed before, but the people put it back up again.

“As soon as they get here, they take it down, and as soon as they’ve gone, we put it up again,” the parishioner said. “But I can’t say too much.”

The United States of America (US)-based ChinaAid says that around 90 per cent of all crosses have now been removed in Zhejiang and several dozen churches demolished completely.

Meanwhile in the southwestern province of Guizhou, Radio Free Asia reported that authorities appear to be preparing to prosecute a deacon from the Protestant Guiyang Huoshi Church, who was detained on July 28.

Lawyers say that she is to be charged with running an illegal business.

The pastor from the Church, Li Zhiguo, has also been formally arrested and charged with deliberately leaking state secrets. To date he has been denied permission to meet with his lawyer, who is not sure whether he will be allowed to attend his client’s trial or not.

Back in Zhejiang, Pastor Bao Guohua has been sentenced to 14 years in prison and his wife 12 on charges of embezzling funds, disturbance of public order, illegal commercial activities and concealment of financial documents and invoices.

AsiaNews reported that Pastor Bao was in charge of the Holy Love Church and the local Jinhua Daily newspaper ran a front page story on him on August 4 last year, accusing him of using Church funds inappropriately, robbing the parishioners and living a luxurious life.

It also claimed that a room full of jewellery and cash hidden in his home was discovered by police.

In the most high profile case, a lawyer, Zhang Kai, who was prominent in defending Church communities against the removal of the crosses from their buildings, was paraded on state television on February 25, just six months after he was detained—the maximum anyone can be legally held without being charged.

In his 11-minute television appearance Zhang confessed to disturbing the public order, saying that he is deeply remorseful. 

UCAN reported him as saying, “I violated national law, disrupted social order, endangered national security and violated the professional code of conduct for lawyers.”

The segment also featured Zhang’s assistant, Liu Peng, who vanished some time ago, as well as the public security officer handling his case and local Christians from Wenzhou, who condemned him.

Zhang admitted on television that his advocacy for the Churches had earned him international acclaim, as foreign media featured his work prominently.

There was an international outcry, including from US secretary of state, John Kerry, when he was detained in late August, the day before he was due to meet the religious freedom envoy, David Saperstein, who was visiting form Washington.

Zhang also confessed to accepting funding from overseas agencies, a catch-all charge designed to cut human rights workers off from foreign support.

Zhang named two friends of his in the US, Reverend Bob Fu, from ChinaAid, and Yang Fenggang, under whom he studied at Purdue University from 2013 to 2014, as supporting him.

Yang said Fu had been vilified in propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party as an overseas party giving support to Zhang’s work.


Zhang also spoke with government officials and politicians while he was in the US.

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