Cardinal John Tong Hon, the Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, issued an “urgent appeal” on Thursday for China’s government to stop persecuting Christians in Zhejiang Province.

In a pastoral letter entitled “The Sufferings of Cross – Urgent Appeal”, Tong writes 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, members of the clergy and congregation, during their lawful act of defending their faith, have been detained.”

Cardinal Tong's appeal against cross removal in China
Cardinal Tong’s appeal against cross removal in China. Photo: Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

The letter describes how “these incidents have caused much anxiety among Christians, local and overseas, about the policies of the government in regard to freedom of religion.” As such, Tong makes two “sincere and urgent appeals” to Beijing.

Tong asks that “the Central Government and authorities concerned liaise with the provincial authorities in Zhejiang province to investigate what has happened; that all unlawful acts of dismantling crosses be stopped; and that all parties concerned stick to the principle of ‘the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and ruling the country according to the law’.”

Second, he requests that “all Catholics in Hong Kong choose some form of penance, such as fast and abstinence, and they especially pray for religious freedom, the dignity of the faith, and share the suffering of their fellow Christians in Zhejiang.”

church cross demolition
Christians protest in front of a church in Leqing, Wenzhou as authorities attempted to remove church cross. Photo: sources. Photo: sources.

According to Christian news site Gospel Herald, over 1,200 church crosses have been taken down in the past a year and a half in Zhejiang. Authorities claim church cross demolitions are part of a campaign to remove “illegal structures” of all kinds in order to eliminate fire and safety hazards.

The campaign has earned condemnation from even the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a state-run body established to drive a wedge between Chinese Catholics and the Holy See. The CPCA has called for an immediate halt to the destruction, arguing that it is illegal to remove crosses from properly registered churches.

Zhejiang is a traditional Christian stronghold with churches and church premises dating back to the 1840s. Wenzhou, a city of over nine million in the southeast of the province, has been dubbed “China’s Jerusalem” due to its high concentration of Christians.

According to official data, Christians make up at least 11 percent of Wenzhou’s population – a number likely much larger when members of unofficial “house churches” are accounted for.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Tong’s predecessor as Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, is known for his outspokenness on issues regarding human rights, political freedom and religious liberty, often attracting criticism from the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2014, Zen supported the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement and led prayers for activists outside of the Legislative Council building.

Historically, terse relations between the Vatican and Beijing warmed recently with the ordination of Bishop Zhang Yinlin on August 4, who ascended to the position with both CPCA and Vatican approval.

On July 23, Beijing also announced that it would recognise seminary studies and allow seminarians to continue their education in state universities should they leave.

These small but positive steps raised hopes for a possible Papal visit the mainland and even reconciliation between the Vatican and the CPCA, but the aggressive Zhejiang campaign has antagonised the Church’s faithful in China.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others