Tea Leaf Nation

One Chinese Province Sets Dimensions for Christian Crosses

Stranger still, new rules would require different ratios for Catholic and Protestant symbols.

A young Chinese worshipper attends the Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing on December 24, 2014 as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the holy day.  AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR        (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A young Chinese worshipper attends the Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing on December 24, 2014 as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the holy day. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The skyline of what some call China’s Jerusalem may never be the same. On May 7, authorities in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang released new draft regulations that would, if made law, ban crosses mounted atop houses of worship, though still permitting the important Christian symbol if fully attached to church facades. The province is home to about 4,000 churches, half of which are concentrated in the southeastern city of Wenzhou, known to some as “China’s Jerusalem” for its large number of Christian meeting places. The draft regulations come after an ongoing crackdown on Christian houses of worship there saw more than 400 crosses and several churches leveled over the past year, with occasional outbreaks of violence as some churchgoers barricaded their buildings to prevent the destruction. Prior to the demolitions, the crosses, many of them large and illuminated by neon lights after sunset, had dotted Wenzhou’s skyline.

In addition to the ban on skyline crosses, the new draft regulations, according to a May 7 article in the English-language edition of state-run Global Times, stipulate that “the vertical and horizontal parts of a cross for Catholic churches should be 1 to 0.618.” That happens to be the Golden Ratio — a well-known irrational number that some believe to be related to aesthetically pleasing geometric shapes — rounded to three decimal places. The article gave no explanation for the apparently bizarre specificity of the regulation, nor why the new rules require that crosses on Protestant churches to have a different, 3:2 ratio. Other stipulations include strict limits on the size of the cross, which must not be more than one-tenth the height of the building to which it’s attached, and the color, which must blend into the edifice.

The new guidelines seem designed to reduce the public visibility of Christianity in a region previously known for its large number of adherents. While Protestant Christianity and Catholicism are officially legal in China — as are Islam, Daoism, and Buddhism — religion is subject to strict controls by the ruling and officially atheist Chinese Communist Party. Authorities have been particularly suspicious of Christianity due to its association with colonialism in 19th century China, its perception as a foreign religion (while Buddhism, which originated in India, gets a pass), and in the past three decades, its rapid growth, which potentially introduces an influential social factor beyond party control. Though official estimates put the number of Christians in China at 23 million, some outside observers place the number at up to 100 million, more than the 80 million members of the ruling party. The regulations, if implemented, will also provide legal backing for any future cross removal.

While the regulations are available on the Zhejiang provincial government website, Chinese media appears otherwise mum; the Times article first mentioning the restrictions has been removed. And government authorities have in the past issued directives prohibiting media outlets from covering church demolitions, removing social media posts about them. For example, on April 29, one Weibo user vented frustration at the destruction of crucifixes and churches. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” the user wrote, citing a Bible verse often used by Christians as a basis for obeying the laws of the land. “This is peaceful coexistence. Why is [the government] pressing harder and harder?” The post was later deleted, and the commenter’s account closed.

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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