By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
LATE one cool fall evening following their weekly worship, An Zhengsheng and about two dozen other villagers huddled around a single lamp in an earthen-brick farmhouse.
"Do you think it is all right to tell them the truth?" one anxious man interrupted as Mr. An, a group leader, spoke to visitors in this tiny Roman Catholic community in Hebei Province.
"No matter," An reassured as he spoke of the dilemma of Christians in this area.
"Catholics are under the leadership of the Communist Party. But how can we disobey the pope in Rome?" An asked. "The only freedom we have is to say our prayers. But the government can't control what we feel in our hearts."
Churches across China overflowed with worshippers this Christmas season, but Chinese Christians still struggle with repression and official limits on religious practice.
Since the government relaxed the ban on religion after reforms were launched in 1978, believers have returned to open worship and their numbers are on the rise.
"Congregations are increasing at a very fast pace," says Gotthard Oblau, a Hong Kong-based official with the Amity Foundation, a development agency linked to Protestant churches in China. "At the national level, religion is restricted, but there is still enough flexibility so that Christians can build churches, worship, and practice their faith."
Yet Western observers say that the degree of flexibility varies from town to town, county to county, and province to province. In recent years, hundreds of clergy and believers have been arrested and scores of "house churches," often hidden in private huts, have been shut down.
Provinces such as Anhui and Hebei have maintained oppressive restrictions, while Zhejiang Province is so liberal that some Protestant groups have labeled it "China's Jerusalem." Underground churches
Christians number only a tiny percentage of China's population, although no one is sure how many there are. Members of state-run, "patriotic" churches are estimated at about 10 million. The underground Christian community could be as large as 40 million, Western observers say.
Underground Christians, especially Catholics, do not accept the supremacy of China's Communist rulers on religious matters. In turn, they have been accused of fomenting political discontent. …