China's Quiet Christians

By Ren, Yuan | The Spectator, November 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

China's Quiet Christians


Ren, Yuan, The Spectator


Inside the 'secret' churches whose congregations are growing week by week

Beijing

A strong coffee always perks me up on a smoggy day, especially when I can drink it somewhere clandestine -- like an 'illegal' church. Seek, and you shall find -- but when it comes to Christianity in China, you're likely to get a bit lost. Without being told where it was, I could have spent a lifetime walking past the anonymous, seemingly empty office block, never knowing that inside it was abuzz with religious activity. A discreet sign in the lobby is the only indication that a Sunday service is in progress. In other parts of the world, a church announces itself to the faithful with a cross on a steeple. The absence of this is one reason you can't find Chinese churches -- though the Zion Protestant Church is one of the most prominent, albeit unregistered, churches in Beijing.

Zion may not resemble a traditional church on the outside, but it's not exactly 'underground' either -- along with coffee, you can buy little bears wearing 'Jesus loves me' T-shirts in its bustling café. By 10 a.m. the central hall is packed out for the second Chinese service of the day (there are also services held in Korean and English). A few hundred people were singing along to hymns played by a live band on a stage. Some had their arms in the air and part of me hoped it would turn into Sister Act . But the congregation remained very earnest, much like the clean-cut young women who approach me on the streets after dark and ask if I want to learn about Jesus. The words 'I am willing to preach the Gospel' flash up on multiple plasma screens across the room.

There are officially recognised churches in China, in which both the building and its pastor have been state-sanctioned, the latter trained in schools where teaching is aligned with Communist party ideology. Mainstream Christianity in China is, in fact, a not-so-holy trinity formed of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, which is set up by the state. The Pope doesn't get a look-in -- at least not where the Communist party rules supreme. China ceased diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951. But China is a rising power on the world stage, with a fast growing number of Catholics, so the Vatican is still keen to embrace the faithful in Beijing -- it is expected to formally recognise four China-ordained Catholic bishops in negotiations this month.

Many Chinese converts do not want their faith to be controlled by the government -- and so they join covert congregations like the one at Zion, which was founded in 2009. 'For every one of the official churches, there's at least another unregistered church,' explains Ian Johnson, author of a new book on China's religious revival, Lost Souls of China . 'Many of those who attend "house" churches started by going to official churches and then branched out.' The number of Christians is now estimated at around 60 to 70 million -- much higher than official reports suggest.

In Beijing, Christianity is permitted to thrive, as long as it does so quietly, but elsewhere in China there has been a crackdown. Last summer, in Zhejiang province -- a region with a rich history of missionary activity -- crosses were removed from the exteriors of more than 1,000 churches.

For the most part, the Zhejiang campaign was more about reducing the profile of Christianity than about strangling the religion itself. …

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