Following more than a year of cross and church demolitions in Zhejiang Province, in May the provincial government published a draft set of regulations governing the construction and location of religious venues, as well as the placement of Christian crosses. The draft regulations were posted on the websites of two government agencies, with a request for comments from the public. One pastor in the province shared his comments with the Gospel Times, who in turn posted it on their site. It’s an interesting look at how these regulations are viewed by a Christian leader, as well a fascinating window into how the religious sphere “talks to” the state in China, employing language the state understands while respectfully pushing back.
From a Christian Pastor:
6 Questions Regarding the "Zhejiang Religious Building Regulations (Draft)"
Editor's note: From May 5-20, the Zhejiang Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs and the Zhejiang Department of Construction published a draft of the "Zhejiang Religious Building Regulations" on their websites to request public feedback on the document. The 36 page "Regulations" document provides specific instructions for such details as the selection of building sites, the scale, and design for the construction of new religious buildings within the Zhejiang Provincial Administrative Area. Gospel Times received this report from a Christian pastor who confirmed that Zhejiang Province has a taken the "gutsy" initiative to officially publish this document on the management of religion. At the same time, believing that the document still needs improvement, he also raised at least six questions.
If the conditions were ripe enough, Zhejiang could take the lead in both demonstrating management according to the rule of law and in the ideology of "serve the people" that is behind the "Religious Building Regulations." At the very least, it could be seen to have positive significance on a theoretical level. However, the present conditions are certainly not right for this.
Question 1: What has been the positive impact of the "cross rectification" campaign?
As is commonly known, a religious building not only represents functionality, it also reflects its religious culture, symbolic faith, and the believers' sense of spiritual belonging. Ever since the Party founded the country, the fundamental basis for religious policies has been an awareness of the "extreme complexity" of religion. The situation for each of China's five major religions is different and each situation is complex. Since the beginning of last year, Zhejiang province has spent manpower and resources to rectify the crosses on churches. This has triggered public discontent and a negative reaction. One key issue is that, to date there has not been an official document directed toward the community addressing this issue. Can this kind of approach positively impact the community? Also, they have used the "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign to mislead the public and to disguise the issues. Even if history shows that the whole story indeed has to do with the legality of the existence of religious places of worship, people will still ask, "Can tearing down religious symbols replace enforcement of the law? Is that why it is possible to tear down crosses while violating the law with impunity?" In the short-term, they are hastily publishing "regulatory documents." Naturally, people are suspicious of this aura of law enforcement. It is impossible to be meticulous and thorough in such a short amount of time. Having good intentions does not necessarily mean that society will benefit.
Question 2: What is the purpose of the section in the regulations regarding the detailed specifications of religious buildings?
Zhejiang Province can set a gutsy precedent in the area of religious management, but it must act to reflect the spirit of "seeking truth from facts." It must embody the Party line for the masses; it must comply with social harmony and the essence of the people's interests, particularly the need to embody the spirit of the rule of law! Unfortunately, however, some of the clauses in "Zhejiang Religious Building Standards" lack the basic spirit of the law and international legal precedent. They also do not conform to the Party's long-held religious policy.
For example, Regulation 4.1.4 says, "The maximum height of a religious building is generally not to exceed 24 meters." Excuse me, but what is this based on? Although land management is urgently needed, the "Regulations" clearly contradict the country's drive in recent years towards land management that has encouraged city construction to "reach for the sky, dig down in the earth." At the same time they ignore another situation: as urban land becomes more scarce, and in order to satisfy the need for religious activity, it is inevitable that office buildings will need to be used for religious worship services. This is very common in Hong Kong and Taiwan. If that is the case, how can they enforce a limit of 24 meters high?
Furthermore, Gothic-style buildings are considered to be some of the finest in the history of world architecture. The most distinct architectural aspects of Catholic Gothic-style church buildings are the towering spires and the enormous stain glass windows. This type of architectural artistry is and has been widely recognized as a cultural symbol of the extraordinary and inspirational Christian spirit. Of course, it is certainly important to promote and advance Sinicized Christian architecture; however, we cannot employ an either-or line of thinking to callously disregard a style of architecture that is accepted around the world. As a matter of fact, many local government offices resemble a variety of architectural styles from around the world. What law can restrict this rich and varied architectural artistry?
Regulation 4.6.4 says, "Regarding the Christian symbol…the cross…in general the entire [cross] should generally be attached to the main facade of the main building." This regulation is probably the only of its kind in the world. Excuse me, but what sort of consideration is this? Are you afraid of the wind or of an earthquake? Or, are you afraid of the harm it could cause to social harmony, economic development, or the political culture? Why is it that the only sign of Christianity, the cross, must be "attached on the main facade" and not on the top of the steeple? Originally, conforming to architectural needs would only have been a matter of permitting an architect to have a creative space. Is such a rigid regulation really necessary? To respect a person, one should first respect the inviolability of his body and not cause him harm. To respect religious freedom, shouldn't we respect the external "body" of a religion, particularly its "head" – the religious symbol?
Question 3: Doesn’t attempting to regulate the religious symbol of the Christian cross constitute religious discrimination?
Regulations 4.5.4 and 4.6.4 discuss the crosses on Catholic and Protestant churches. They require that the entire cross should be "attached to the facade of the main building." However, there are no such restrictions on the size and location of religious symbols for Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. Don't you see towering Buddhist statues everywhere? As long as the legal procedures are followed, no one objects to or places restrictions on them. Also, why can Islamic architectural decoration (symbols) be "in line with traditional Islamic demands," yet Christian symbols must be restricted in size or placement? Doesn't this constitute religious discrimination?
Question 4: Don't the "Regulations" cause people to misunderstand religious sites as a "sources of noise?"
Regulation 3.1.4 says, "Religious venues must maintain the necessary distance from schools, kindergartens, residential areas, and other areas with high noise restrictions." First, such an expression is faulty, since "religious venues" could be easily understood to mean "sources of noise." Using this phrase could give even more ammunition to people who already discriminate against religion. Maintaining a distance from schools and kindergartens is understandable. But maintaining the required distance from "residential areas" could easily be misinterpreted and exploited. In China, where religious believers are an overwhelming minority, and where feudalistic superstition and folk religions dominate most areas, people often create excuses for their opposition to building places of religious worship and create difficulties for Christians in selecting a place of Christian worship. This also causes a lot of difficulty for government work and can create tension with such policies as "make it easy for religious groups to live religious lives." In fact, in the past and even now, many overseas and domestic locations have ”community churches,” which are adjacent to the community. As long as everything is done in order, religious sites and the community coexist harmoniously; in fact, they can even be a service to the community.
Question 5: Don't the regulations regarding the proportion of auxiliary buildings to the main religious building take into consideration regular religious activities?
Regulation 4.1.1 says, "The scale of auxiliary religious buildings should conform to the scale of the main religious building; its surface area should be under 0.5 times the surface area of the main religious building." Each religious situation is different and the needs are not the same. Between providing community services and increased fellowship activities, auxiliary buildings are used constantly, while the main building is generally used once a week. According to preliminary estimates, the current estimated proportion of religious main buildings to auxiliary buildings at home and abroad is, for the most part, 1:1, while there are some at 1:2 or even greater. There are none at 0.5 or less. By promoting distribution of people and offering the option for multiple activities, the number of large-scale events can be decreased. And from the point of view of ensuring safety, it would be better to increase the surface area of auxiliary buildings, as well as maintain the scale of the main buildings. This will allow for the regular pattern of religious activities.
Question 6: The regulations are too detailed. It will not only be amusing that “outsiders” will try to direct the “experts,” but it will also leave too much power in the hands of the authorities. How will “rule by law” even be possible?
Regulation 1.0.1 illustrates the basic intent of the regulation: "To protect the quality and safety of religious buildings, to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of religious communities." However, most of the provisions are restrictive, not protective. The document fails to reflect the positive spirit of guiding the religious community to become a builder of a harmonious society. Moreover, some of the provisions are extremely complicated. And some provisions are extremely vague, leaving many of the rights open to interpretation by law enforcement officials. For example, Regulation 4.5.4 not only designates the proportion of the cross to the building facade, but it also designates the length and width of the cross itself. What's interesting is that even the length and width of the cross proportions are different for Catholic and Protestant Churches! This sort of "layperson" guiding "experts" document will become the joke of the world's religious community! In a day when Premier Li Keqiang emphasizes that "the elimination of the exercise of public power is not regulated or even abused" can we say that this way of doing things ("poor management is no management at all") is rule according to law?
Another example is the Regulation 4.5.4, which says, "The color of the cross should be in harmony with the surface of the building and the surrounding environment." But, isn't the phrase "be in harmony with" extremely vague? Does someone who is trained in aesthetics or some other specialized team get to decide?
The Marxist view of religion considers religions to have their own patterns of birth, development, and demise. This sort of pattern does not change based on man's will, nor does it change based on the number, or the size, or the height of religious symbols! Local governments must properly grasp the essence of this Marxist view of religion and fully understand the longevity and reasonableness of religion under the conditions of socialism. Political power shouldn’t be used to eradicate religion, nor should it be used to develop religion. At the same time, we must recognize that under the historical conditions of socialism, uniformity in the fundamental benefits of both religious groups and non-religious groups is far more important than the differences in religious faith; thus differences in faith should not lead to an oppositional political stance." (Quote from a Xi Jinping speech). This writer is willing to say that the majority of colleagues in the religious community support the leadership of the Party, they take the lead in observing the law, they strive to be of one mind, and they contribute their own energy to building a prosperous society. At the same time, this writer also looks forward to a time when the relevant government departments can approach religion rationally, treat religion favorably, and genuinely respect other people's religious beliefs. Therefore, in order to continue to preserve excellent conditions for religious harmony, I call for greater effort to improve the "Building Regulations." Or, when conditions are ripe, to reissue a draft "Regulations" that the religious community can truly take to heart, that comforts the hearts of religious believers, and increases the power of the "Chinese Dream!"
NOTE: This article represents only the point of view of the author and does not represent the point of view or position of Gospel Times. These views are offered to the reader for consideration.
Original article: 基督教牧者：对《浙江省宗教建筑规范（试行）》的六点疑问 (Gospel Times)
Image credit: Church of TianJin City, by 廷 温, via Flickr
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.