Hong Kong’s Cardinal John Tong Hon has issued “an urgent appeal” to the Chinese authorities in Beijing to halt the demolition of crosses in the province of Zhejiang, eastern China, where more than 1,000 crosses have been forcibly removed from Christian and Catholic churches since early 2014.
“The cross is the sign most representative of the Christian faith” the cardinal reminded the Chinese leaders in his public appeal on August 13. The appeal carries a striking title: “The sufferings of the Cross.”
He drew the Chinese leaders’ attention to the fact that “over the past two years, the crosses erected at over a thousand churches, Christian or Catholic, in Zhejiang province have been dismantled by force. Those dismantled include many that have been lawfully constructed with permits.”
“In some of these incidents," he said, "members of the clergy and congregation, during their lawful act of defending their faith, have been detained, causing a lot of tension in local parishes.”
He emphasized that “these incidents have caused much anxiety among Christians, local and overseas, about the policies of the government in regard to freedom of religion.”
Since this has gone on for twenty months it is clear that the authorities in Beijing know what is happening in this eastern province. For this reason also the Chinese cardinal appealed “with utmost sincerity and urgency” to the Central Government and the relevant authorities in Beijing to take action.
In particular, he called on them to “liaise with the provincial authorities in Zhejiang province to investigate into what has happened” and to ensure “that all unlawful acts of dismantling crosses be stopped” and “that all the parties concerned stick to the principle of the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and ruling the country according to the law.”
Beijing has long insisted that “freedom of religion” is fully respected in the People’s Republic of China, but this mass demolition of crosses has led many inside and outside China to question the truthfulness of that statement. The cardinal, who is a very moderate man, is now challenging the Chinese leadership to ensure full respect of the Constitution and the law of the mainland in this whole matter that is part of religious freedom.
At the same time, as bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Tong called on the more than 500,000 faithful of his diocese to take steps to help their fellow Christians in Zhejiang by choosing “some forms of penance, such as fast and abstinence” and “especially (to) pray for religious freedom, the dignity of the faith” and in this way to “share the sufferings of their fellow Christians in Zhejiang.”
It’s estimated that there are more than 2 million Christians in the province of Zhejiang, including some 210,000 Catholics. The cardinal’s appeal reflects his deep concern at the great suffering of these Christians in that province as a result of these demolitions.
His appeal follows a statement along the same lines some days earlier by the Anglican archbishop of Hong Kong, Paul Kwong. “That the authorities forcefully removed the cross without obvious and immediate danger, it is damaging religious freedom and trampling on Christianity,” he said. According to UCA News, the main Catholic news agency in Asia, the archbishop revealed that he had written about this matter to Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), in June 2014 and Wang confirmed receiving his letter last October.
Significantly, a great many Christians in Zhejiang have resisted the demolitions in non-violent ways in the face of armed policemen, as was seen recently in the city of Wenzhou, known as “the Jerusalem of China” because it is home to an estimated 1 million Christians. Many here and throughout the province of Zhejiang have protested in the social media, and news of the resistance and protests have spread inside mainland China as well as internationally.
The demolition of the crosses began twenty months ago when, according to various reports, Zhejiang’s Communist Party Secretary looked at the skyline of the city of Wenzhou and concluded that it had "too many crosses."
Many Christians see the cross demolitions as a way by some elements of the Communist party to reduce the growing influence and visibility of Christianity in this province, and elsewhere in China.
Cardinal Tong’s appeal is also seen as a sign of solidarity with the local (state-recognized) bishop of Wenzhou, Vincent Zhu Weifang, who called for prayers – including saying the rosary – and fasting as a way to protect the faith and the crosses.