BEIJING — China’s officially atheist government wants to build a Christian church in the hometown of Confucius to help foster a relationship between an ancient philosophy and the country’s fastest-growing religion. But suddenly, it’s not going so smoothly.
Confucian groups and 10 well-known scholars are demanding that the Gothic-style church not be built in Qufu, saying its size threatens to overshadow the world’s most famous Confucian temple and represents a foreign invasion of a sacred place.
"If a super-large Confucius temple were built in Jerusalem, Mecca or the Vatican, overshadowing the religious buildings there, how would the people feel about it? Would the government and the people accept it?" says an open letter from the protesters that was dated Wednesday and posted on blogs.
Caught in the debate is the church’s pastor, a 75th-generation descendant of Confucius. The church means a lot because it will be in the philosopher’s hometown, a symbol of Chinese civilization, Kong Xiangling told the state-run Xinhua News Agency this month.
After being attacked as backward during the era of Mao Zedong, Confucius is experiencing a revival. A government-backed biopic starring Chow Yun-fat was released this year, and Beijing is promoting its brand of "soft power" under the philosopher’s name overseas, with a growing number of Confucius Institutes for culture and language learning.
Now, Chinese officials are pushing his birthplace in the eastern province of Shandong as a place where ideas on his philosophy and Christianity can be exchanged. They’ve said the church will include a center to host dialogues on the two civilizations.
But the scholars’ protest brings up deeply held cultural concerns about just what being Chinese means.
Confucianism, with its emphasis on morality, proper social relationships and ritual, is seen more as a philosophy than a religion, but it can be considered China’s most influential guide. Among the country’s five officially recognized religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism — only one, Taoism, is native to China.
China’s ruling Communist Party embraces Confucius for use in shaping what it likes to call a "harmonious society," but it’s also stoked the nationalism that objects to the church in Qufu.
One of the protest letter’s signers, Confucian scholar Chen Ming of Beijing Capital Normal University, noted pointedly that the friction between Western religions and peasants in Shandong a century ago led to the famous Boxer Rebellion, which swept through northern China and into Beijing in nationalistic anger against Western imperialism. Chinese students are still taught to see the era as a time of humiliation at foreign hands.
"Of course, I don’t agree with rejecting the outside world, but I also believe the necessary respect to the local culture is essential," Chen wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Friday.
This week’s open letter — signed by 10 scholars and 10 Confucian groups — says the protesters don’t object to Christianity but take issue with the church itself. It will be more than 41 meters (135 feet) high and will be able to hold 3,000 people when it’s completed about two years from now, Xinhua reported. Officials have said Qufu has about 10,000 Christians and that the current makeshift church holds just 800 at most.
The scholars argue that the church’s size could upstage the Confucius temple, located less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) away. While its complex is more sprawling, the temple’s tallest building is about 45 meters (147 feet) high.
The director of Qufu’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau, Kong Wei, had no comment Friday evening.
In one recent step toward calming old tensions, Qufu hosted the first government-backed Nishan Forum on World Civilizations this fall, with international scholars of Christianity and Confucianism, including American televangelist Robert Schuller, meeting under the motto "Harmony, Love, Integrity, Tolerance."
But among the signers of this week’s protest letter was one of the forum’s organizers, Shandong University professor and Confucian scholar Yan Binggang. During the forum, he spoke strongly about the "coercion employed by Protestant missionaries in China during the 19th century," according to an account of the forum posted on a Chinese philosophy blog.
One Western participant in the forum said the letter should not be viewed as intolerant toward Christianity, "but rather specifically from the stance that Qufu, as the place most closely associated with early Confucianism, has a special status."
In an e-mail to the AP, Stephen Angle, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University in the U.S. state of Connecticut, said Chinese cities and architecture "take the relative statuses of buildings and their associated roles into account, and so there is indeed some ground for the concern that the church’s design may be inappropriate, given the location."