Xi Jinping’s crackdown on civil society appears to be moving onto sacred ground. The Chinese government has just arrested the pastor of China’s largest official Protestant church, as Time reports:
Pastor Gu Yuese, also known as Joseph Gu, was placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” — the official term for facilities known more commonly as “black jails” — in the city of Hangzhou last Thursday, according to U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid.
Gu, who headed Hangzhou’s prominent Chongyi Church, was reportedly removed from his post by China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the Chinese Communist Party–sanctioned authority that regulates churches, 10 days prior to his detention. He had been vocal in his opposition to the government’s destruction of crosses atop church buildings in China’s Christian-dominated eastern province of Zhejiang, a campaign that began in 2014.
“His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses,” Bob Fu, president and founder of China Aid, said in a statement. “He will be the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution.”
Pastor Gu’s detention represents the latest development in a dispute between China’s central government and the burgeoning Christian community in Zhejiang Province. In 2013, local authorities began a wide-ranging demolition campaign that was ostensibly aimed at “illegal structures,” most of which turned out to be Christian churches and prominent crosses atop them. An internal government document obtained by the New York Times put the lie to the government’s proclamations of neutrality, as it spells out the provincial government’s intention to “remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways, and provincial highways…Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”
After the demolition of their $3 million cathedral and the removal of their most sacred symbol from steeple and spire, Zhejiang’s Christians might have been hoping for a reprieve from Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on institutions he considers to be possible sources of dissent. However, if bookstore employees in Hong Kong are considered dangerous enough to spirit away, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the leader of the country’s largest Christian church, who has directly criticized government actions, was next on the list. Regardless, most previous Chinese government persecution of Christians was concentrated on illegal “house churches” and unsanctioned, “unpatriotic” Christianity. It appears that accepting a sanitized and officially regulated version of Christianity will no longer be enough to escape official harassment. For now, many of China’s Christians will worship in unmarked churches, hoping for a thaw.