How Christianity Thrives in China

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President Bush's decision to take time out from his diplomatic schedule to pray with the congregants of the Protestant  Gangwashi Church in western Beijing has been greeted as a welcome gesture of support by many of China's estimated 60 million Christians. A tiny, long-embattled minority in a nation ruled by an officially atheist Communist Party, China's Christians face strict limits on their freedom to pursue their faith. Still, since reforms were first initiated in 1978 by Communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping, Chinese Christians have learned to thrive even within official constraints, and their population is many times larger now than it was when the Communists came to power in 1949. In fact, Christians are believed to be China's fastest-growing religious group.

For a look at how Christian communities are growing, check out the small city of Quanzhou. The greatest tourist attraction for Protestants here is not the graceful Buddhist temple built 500 years before Marco Polo visited this part of coastal Fujian province. Instead, they visit a newer structure. "The red cross over the altar is marvelous," says one wide-eyed Christian minister who traveled a hundred miles to see this refurbished Protestant church, which is complete but for installing the pews. "Where did you get the wood for the trim?" asks a fellow visitor. Then comes the burning question. "How did you pay for it?"

The $1.5 million Southern Church, with Ionic columns and a rooftop gazebo, stands as a monument to China's thriving Christians, and shows the extent to which China's Christian revival has been bankrolled by Chinese Christians living abroad. Most Chinese churches, like hose here in Quanzhou, have registered with the government, which sets limits on their activities. Yet Quanzhou's congregations have renovated their churches in ways that make them the envy of their brethren across China. Generous contributions from expatriate Chinese — many of whom emigrated as stowaways to the United States — have helped turn the Southern Church into the biggest Protestant sanctuary in Fujian province, with seating planned for 2,500 people. Their achievement has been made possible by a workable peace with authorities. "There are things we can't do, but many important things that we can," says a church member named Chen who, like everyone interviewed, declined to give her full name.

Christianity is legal in China, but fettered: The country's estimated 50 million Protestants, whose ranks grow by roughly 2 million a year, must submit to the authority of the government's Religious Affairs Bureau. Its officials make sure churches follow written and unwritten rules — no members under 18, no overt evangelical work, no emphasizing the Second Coming and, above all, no questioning of Communist Party rule. Christians who worship in unregistered "house churches" often face harassment, or worse. Last year a woman died in police custody after being detained for distributing Bibles on the street. Police regularly round up members of heterodox Christian sects like Lightning from the East, which believes that Jesus has already returned, as a Chinese woman.

As for Catholics, they're forced to worship in churches approved by the state-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which insists on loyalty to itself rather than to the Vatican. But changes may be afoot: Although the Chinese government assumes the Pope's prerogative by appointing its own bishops, the Vatican has quietly approved of around 90% of Beijing's choices. That means there's little difference between bishops and priests in the official Catholic church and those whose underground flocks worship outside of government control — although the reported arrest of an underground priest and ten seminarians on November 12 shows the dangers of worshipping outside of government restrictions. Vatican officials have said they are moving closer to establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing for the first time since the 1950s. That's expected within the next 18months, and would score a diplomatic victory for Beijing by forcing the Vatican to sever ties with China's arch-rival, Taiwan. For its part, the Vatican would bring around ten million Catholics under its umbrella.

The Protestants at the South Church have had to find their own strategies for expanding their flock without running up against the government. The unusual gazebo on the roof, for instance, replaced a planned steeple that government officials found "too iconographic." And unable to buy new land for expansion, the congregation has used overseas funds to enlarge their existing buildings. South Church ministers don't press the authorities to reclaim for land confiscated during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution (when the church itself was converted into a bucket factory). Instead, their focus is outward, handing guests a brochure with bank account numbers and international transfer codes to take contributions from abroad.      

The non-confrontational approach adopted by Quanzhou's Protestants helps them bend the rules. It has, for example, addressed the countrywide shortage of government-approved ministers by running two-week training courses for lay preachers. On a recent day, young men from the countryside swapped stories inside their wood-paneled dorm rooms behind a small neighborhood church. One complains about rules against proselytizing. In reply, another explains how his youth group picks up trash on public streets "while wearing hats with the name of our church," then handing out pamphlets to passers-by who express interest.

Although churches aren't supposed to run expansive youth programs, every July, Quanzhou's Protestants hold a three-day youth festival with children's choirs singing hymns and a theater group acting out the story of Noah. A recent Bible-study class saw 200 people focused on Revelation, Chapter 15, and openly discussing the Apocalypse. The subject of a Sunday sermon was Justification by Faith, the idea that faith in Jesus is the only passport to Heaven — something religious-affairs officials de-emphasize in favor of obedience and good works.

   Some practices, though, are too risky for even a Quanzhou service. Time observed 20 church members kneeling on pillows laid on the tiled floor of an elder's apartment for a home-church prayer session. It's the kind of service police can break up, if they choose. For a half hour attendees took turns. "Lord, let China be Christian," invoked one woman. Amen, they said. "China has made economic progress, but the nation is empty." Many voices mumbled affirmation. "Let the country's new leaders hear us and protect us." Hallelujah. Then they recited the Lord's prayer, drank warm water with honey, and departed into the night.