Chinese Christians flocking

Christian Science Monitor/December 28, 2003
By Robert Marquand

Xiamen, China -- China's first Protestant church is still located on a back alley of fish markets and fruit stalls in this old port city. A crest atop the brick colonial structure reads ''1848.''

Yet the Xinjie Church here is hardly a museum piece.

Every Sunday it overflows with more than 2,000 people during its two regular services, with more coming during the Christmas season.

Christianity -- in both the official and unofficial churches -- is again gaining momentum in China, and is a source of fear for the party leadership.

Christians number as many as 90 million, according to some estimates. ''Being Christian'' is fashionable, with young people sporting crosses as a mild form of dissent, and others feeling the faith has an international cachet.

But something more is at work. In many interviews, congregants say the deity they worship communicates, and has power in their lives, especially now when China is going through jarring economic changes that upset older social contracts.

''People in China have a spiritual hunger, very much so,'' says an official church pastor in Xiamen, ''and there is a need for that to be filled. I think this is the main reason why we continue to have larger services.''

Last Sunday, several Xiamen churches held a Christmas party, notable because preaching took place. The gathering at an ocean-side exhibition center was so large that 300 people were turned away. In Quanzhou, north of Xiamen, church members tore down an 800-seat edifice and have nearly finished a 2,500-seat $1.6 million new church that is 90 percent financed by the 3,000 congregants there.

In and around Xiamen, Protestant worshippers pay little attention to China's Shanghai-based official church hierarchy.

They hold Bible study groups, have choir rehearsals and gather in volunteer groups. ''We have to join the [official] church, but then we do and say what we want,'' says a local pastor. ''We preach the living God.''

Still, what's happening around Xiamen is a far cry from the way Ji Lu worships in Beijing, the center of political power.

Ji helps lead prayers in an unofficial church -- where 20 people gather in a room so small that when they share tea and cakes afterward, all must stand.

Ji is one of an estimated 30 to 60 million ''unregistered'' Christian believers. His sect is made up of nearly a hundred other small groups around Beijing -- part of a range of illegal evangelical sects in China, some extremely devout.

The rising evangelical movement in China is creating tension as individual longings challenge a state operating for a half century on principles of collective social order.

Not only are there renewed government efforts to curb Christian churches, policies to stop Sunday schools, restrictions on the movement of pastors from one city to another, attempts to dilute theological content, and efforts to stymie new church applications with red tape, but suspicions have also been growing between official and unofficial ''home church'' Christians as well.

Christianity in China began to flourish after the Opium Wars, as European and American missionaries set out for the Orient. ''In 1842, the Gospel of God was disseminated in Xiamen,'' according to the Xinjie Church council here. Churches grew rapidly throughout China, and have been regarded by officialdom and locals as a mixed blessing ever since.

When the communists consolidated power in 1949 under Chairman Mao Zedong, religion was reorganized. Missionaries were largely driven out. Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants and Taoists were brought under government control, and they remain the five officially sanctioned religions in China today.

Since the 1980s, as China liberalized, churches were again allowed to open. But a burst of religious expression brought a series of tighter controls.

Churches in the city of Wenzhou last year conducted a campaign of civil disobedience in response to official efforts to stop the teaching of Sunday school. Evangelicals in Henan Province have been targeted, as have home-church prayer leaders in Shanghai, who have been sent to labor camps. Church building is constricted.

A government official says one reason for so many home churches is that official services are full.

''It is very difficult to register any new churches right now,'' says the official. "There has always been a policy not to allow more churches, but now it is being enforced. The government wants to stop the evangelical growth."

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