Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

China's Underground Christian Churches

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

China's Underground Christian Churches

Article excerpt

SHANGHAI --

In a trendy coffee shop in Shanghai's glittering financial district, five people cram into a tiny, dimly lit back room with two tables. By day, these five are white-collar workers, eagerly climbing the corporate ladder as China's economy booms. By night, once a week, they're huddled over their Bibles.

"I was disappointed and struggling," said Elvis Ma, a 29-year- old working in the financial industry. "Before I knew God, I felt trapped."

Mr. Ma and the other four elect to worship in what's widely known as the "underground church," a place for Chinese Christians to practice in smaller settings and without fear of government influence on what's being preached.

It comes with a different fear, though: Being an unregistered Christian is illegal.

The underground church, also known as the family church or the home church, has been around for generations. It began as a way for Christians to worship, as practicing Christianity was highly frowned on in China for most of its communist history under Mao Zedong.

Believers gathered in small groups in homes, hotels and other discreet areas to practice in secrecy, for fear of government retaliation. This tradition of worshipping in humble places continues today.

"Our party is to believe in God. The government doesn't encourage us to believe in God publicly," Mr. Ma said. "But the government cannot stop it."

Simply practicing isn't illegal, but being unregistered is, according to experts. In the past year, more than 1,000 unregistered Protestant Christians were detained and sentenced, according to China Aid, a nonprofit human-rights organization based in the United States. Some Protestant leaders were placed under house arrest for leading worship in unregistered churches.

A U.S. commission reported that the Chinese government's efforts to suppress the growth of the underground church remain "systematic and intense."

The official church is technically a part of the China Christian Council or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a concept that preaches self-government, self-support and self-propagation. Most services feature a mixture of Roman Catholic and Protestant components as well as nondenominational elements.

Dong Lee, a 29-year-old newlywed who's been practicing Christianity for about four years, said she'd tried attending several types of official church services, but couldn't agree with the traces of Catholicism in some. She now attends a small underground church, and she said she felt she was surrounded by a family who understood her, who'd support her.

"The moment I felt my life needed something, I thought I was in the dark, I hoped something could rescue me," Ms. Dong said. "I read the Bible in the [underground] church, and got answers to questions about myself. "

On Sunday afternoons, Ms. …

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