Held in Turkey on charges of espionage and terrorism, facing a life sentence for doing the work of the church, American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s dramatic release was the work of high-powered diplomacy and prevailing prayer
For 3½ years an imposing Gothic-style church stood near the Wenzhou airport without a cross on its steeple as its members continued worshipping inside the Savior who hung on the cross. Government officials have torn down about 2,000 crosses in Zhejiang province since 2014 in a flex of power against the fast-growing religion, yet this past December one church network decided to put three red crosses back up on their steeples.
In the dark of night on Dec. 23, church members at the three Wenzhou churches climbed up to the roofs of their respective churches and erected new crosses atop the buildings. To protect the crosses, each church set up 24-hour guards to surround the church: Up to 200 congregants sang praise songs and prayed aloud during the day and more than a dozen kept watch at night.
“The cross identifies the building as a church,” said Titus Zhao, an evangelist at the Gothic-style church. “Without it, the building is just another building.” (We’ve changed Zhao’s name and others in this article to protect them from greater harassment.) Christmas is a big evangelistic opportunity in China and the church leaders wanted to ensure Wenzhou residents and recent migrants to the city knew where to find them. With this in mind, the leaders of the church network crafted new, smaller crosses in their church basements and sanctuaries. They planned to put up a peaceful resistance, but if forced to take the crosses down again, the leaders said they’d obey, as “we still have the cross in our hearts.”
Two days after the crosses went back up, local officials came by, having spotted the new additions through surveillance cameras set up outside the churches. At Cang He Church, which displayed its original felled cross in the front courtyard and its new cross atop the building, church members refused to open the gate to let the police in and continued their singing and praying. Eventually the police left, deterred by the large crowd. About a week later the police returned, but the same thing happened: Congregants refused to take down the cross and the police left empty-handed. By Jan. 7, authorities had stopped coming, so the three congregations ended their 24-hour watch over their churches.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong with a church building not having a cross,” said Daniel Liu, a leader at the Gothic-style church and a successful factory owner. The leaders in the church network believe the police may come back later to take down the crosses forcibly, but as of Monday, the three red crosses remain standing.
Churches in other parts of China have recently seen demolitions as well. In early January, authorities used explosives to demolish Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi province, a church building that cost attendees $2.6 million to build. Members of the church have faced persecution since 2009, with its leaders imprisoned and beaten, according to the U.S.-based ChinaAid. In December, government officials in nearby Shaanxi forcibly demolished a Catholic church that had been around for nearly 20 years without giving a reason for the destruction. Most recently ChinaAid’s Bob Fu noted that authorities destroyed a 500-member house church in Henan province on Jan. 19, a day after sealing its doors.
Liu believes the increased demolition of crosses and churches around China demonstrates how President Xi Jinping has amassed more power than any other leader since Mao and used it to regulate the church. “They should have never taken the crosses away in the first place,” said Liu. “The cross is the symbol that allows us to evangelize the neighborhood.”