Mega-church ignites firestorm

Source: Sixth Tone (2/21/17)
Noah’s Ark-Inspired Mega-Church Ignites Firestorm
Giant Christian house of prayer in central China elicits curiosity, disdain, hope.
By Colum Murphy and Lin Qiqing

A view of the new Xingsha mega-church in Changsha County, Hunan province, Feb. 12, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone.

They came for a glimpse of a new mammoth, multimillion-dollar church and a stroll through its surrounding parkland. But visitors found their path blocked by a tall corrugated-iron barrier on a recent Sunday morning, forcing them to turn around and leave.

Some were casual tourists making the most of the sunny day in central China’s Hunan province. Others, like 56-year-old Huang Zhenlin, had deeper convictions. Through an opening in the barrier, Huang pleaded in vain with a construction worker inside the site: “Let me in,” he said. “I came here to worship.”

The curious and the devout had flocked to this corner of Changsha County — often referred to by its former name, Xingsha, and located on the outskirts of the provincial capital — to witness for themselves the steel-and-glass church that more closely resembles an airport terminal than a house of God. Topped with a colossal 80-meter-tall steeple, the church is set among parklands totaling 150,000 square meters that also include an institute for biblical studies and a lake. The cost of the project is estimated at 110 million yuan (around $16 million).

But the scheme — sometimes referred to as the “Two Church Project” because it’s being spearheaded by two religious organizations, the Christian Council of Hunan Province and the Hunan Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches — has in recent weeks triggered intense debate, with critics calling the plans extravagant, unnecessary, and even un-Chinese. Some media reports described the project as a kind of “Christian theme park.” Others have questioned how the project could have garnered government support, prompting calls for the house of worship’s destruction. There is evidence to suggest that construction of the church is currently on hold.

Last week, an official from the Hunan ethnic and religious affairs committee denied that the church project was government-sponsored and said that there was no religious theme park.

China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and Christianity has risen in popularity among its citizens in recent years. Official estimates of the number of Protestants in China range between 23 million and 40 million, while Roman Catholics number around 5.5 million. In reality, these populations could be much larger, since many believers are not affiliated with state-sanctioned churches.

However, in recent years, the Communist Party of China has repeated and clarified its instructions that Party members should be atheists. Earlier this month, the Communist Youth League, a Party-led organization for young people, took to Quora-like online forum Zhihu to drive the point home — even reiterating Karl Marx’s view that atheism and communism go hand in hand.

That the new Xingsha church is being built in Changsha — considered a stronghold of communism in China and widely revered as the former home of Mao Zedong — has only fueled critics’ fury. What’s more, the new church sits on a site adjacent to the government-sponsored Xingsha Ecological Park, which is already in operation and celebrates heroes and martyrs of Hunan. Among the figures honored by the park next door is Mao’s son, Mao Anying, who died during the Korean War; a bust of Mao Anying stands in the park, not far from a miniature replica of the Chinese spacecraft CZ-5.

While some of the opposition to the new church appears groundless or based on inaccurate media reports — for example, the characterization of the Xingsha church as a Christian theme park — it’s perhaps unsurprising that an ostentatious display of religiosity in the heartland of Maoism has become so contentious. The issue underscores the delicate balancing act China faces as it reconciles freedom of religion with atheistic communist values.

Yet not all locals are against the new church. One resident surnamed Su, 52, suggested that the project could have a positive economic impact on the area. He also spoke highly of the religion, though he’s not a Christian himself. “They have beliefs, organization, and discipline,” said Su. “It’s a very good thing.”

The intensity of the debate has perhaps been felt most deeply by Hunan Xingsha Christian Church, which currently meets in a temporary location just a few hundred meters away from the new church, on the other side of a busy highway. The two sites may be close in proximity, but in other ways, the distance between the mega-church and the makeshift worship space could not be greater.

Also on that Sunday morning, above an oily auto repair shop, a congregation of more than 100 Christians gathered in prayer. The group of mainly middle-aged, working-class men and women sat on flimsy steel-framed chairs and listened as the pastor used an overhead projector to deliver a sermon.

A view of Hunan Xingsha Christian Church’s temporary meeting spot, located above an auto repair shop in Changsha County, Hunan province, Feb. 15, 2017. The congregation plans to move to the mega-church nearby by the end of the year. Qu Zhan for Sixth Tone

A view of Hunan Xingsha Christian Church’s temporary meeting spot, located above an auto repair shop in Changsha County, Hunan province, Feb. 15, 2017. The congregation plans to move to the mega-church nearby by the end of the year. Qu Zhan for Sixth Tone

After the service, which included the singing of hymns and waving of arms in a gesture of worship, Pastor Chen Zhi declined Sixth Tone’s request for an interview, saying his church had decided not to speak to the press until this “sensitive period” has passed. But that hasn’t stopped Chen from slamming the media for erroneously, in his view, mischaracterizing the project.

The pastor said funding for the project was mainly raised by his and other churches from around the province. The land, he said, was granted to the church by the government as part of a compensation deal for a former church property in Changsha that has been occupied by a government unit since the 1950s.

Chen didn’t elaborate further, referring Sixth Tone to an official statement issued online on Feb. 9 by the two churches leading the Xingsha project. The statement reiterated that the project was independent from the Xingsha Ecological Park and described the plans as measures to “implement the nation’s religious policy.” It referenced the “inherited religious property problem,” also without elaboration. The churches involved had never proposed or built a “Christian theme park,” the statement added.

Huang, the Christian who begged to enter the site on that Sunday, said he would like to come back again when the holy complex is finally open. “The church and the park should be open to everyone, including for weddings,” he said, adding that he has one life goal: “I want to make Christianity China’s national religion,” Huang said.

Those attempting to visit the park that day knew the church itself wasn’t open to the public but expected the grounds to be accessible. Construction, which has experienced several delays already, is slated for completion later this year, according to church officials. When Sixth Tone visited the site, a massive crane towering over the structure was completely stationary, and there was no significant construction work taking place.

Many visitors indicated they had come after a local television segment announced that the site had opened during Chinese New Year, two weeks prior. One middle-aged Christian couple, who didn’t want to be identified, attributed the unexpected blocked access to recent “political sensitivity” surrounding the project.

Entry to the site of the new Xingsha church is blocked by a tall corrugated-iron barrier in Changsha County, Hunan province, Feb. 12, 2017. Many who came to get a closer look at the mega-church and park left disappointed. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Entry to the site of the new Xingsha church is blocked by a tall corrugated-iron barrier in Changsha County, Hunan province, Feb. 12, 2017. Many who came to get a closer look at the mega-church and park left disappointed. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Meanwhile, church officials said the area is cordoned off because construction stopped when workers went on leave for the holidays. An employee from Zhonghao Construction Stock Co. Ltd., the construction company charged with building the church, told Sixth Tone that work had paused “because of some problems” on the church’s side, and that workers have been waiting on orders to continue.

If that Sunday’s visitors had managed to get inside, they would have seen up close the enormous scale of the project. Drone footage captured by Sixth Tone shows steps leading to an elevated second-floor area inside the church that appears will be the nucleus of the structure. While the space will reportedly have a capacity of 3,500 worshippers, the building’s pièce de résistance has to be its towering white cross. Video footage recorded earlier in the month and posted by international video news agency Ruptly shows pathways and other features of the complex in the final stages of completion.

Like many parts of China, the area where the church complex is located has undergone rapid development and has been practically swallowed up by urban sprawl. The church stands on an island of largely inaccessible land surrounded by crisscrossing highways and high-speed railways. Local government plans call for the creation of different “recreation” areas on the land; the new Xingsha church, associated buildings, and surrounding parklands constitute one such area.

In addition to the church complex and the martyr-themed park that opened in 2011, the land also includes a separate area for sports facilities. Parties involved in developing the space include the government-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation and the local government of Changsha County. Combined investment for the site totals 4 billion yuan. A breakdown of investment by the individual parties wasn’t immediately clear. Calls to China State Construction went unanswered. The Hunan ethnic and religious affairs committee and the urban management bureau of Changsha County declined interview requests from Sixth Tone.

Details of the Xingsha church and park project emerged as early as 2011. But controversy didn’t begin to surface until earlier this year. Among the first outlets to question the project’s merits was the well-known neo-Maoist website Utopia. One article published on the site described the project as an illegal construction by the Hunan government, adding that modern Christianity entered China alongside “imperialist cultural invasion.”

The post also stated that when ordinary residents of neighboring Henan province erected a 36-meter-tall golden statue of Mao, local authorities swiftly moved to tear down the project. The article went on to raise questions about the ethics of converting a public space into an arena for Christianity-related events. Describing the Xingsha church project as a “theme park,” a separate article on Utopia called for the immediate demolition of the structure.

Despite the controversy, Chen — the church pastor — said his congregation was happy with the new church and added that he was not worried about debate hindering completion of the project.

Additional reporting by Wu Yue. With contributions from Tang Xiaolan.

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