Chinese Christianity will not be crushed

Underground Christians are starting to defy a government that fears allegiance to anything other than China   Nicola Davison  Tuesday 24 May 2011 16.30 BST
imageThe state-controlled Xishiku Cathedral in Beijing. State-run churches in China are seen as being influenced by politics. Photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Reuters
Visiting Beijing’s now-disbanded Shouwang church late last summer, I struggled to secure a seat. For an “underground” church it was very rowdy. Housed in a bland conference room at a state-run television studio, the church was crammed with some 300 people scrabbling for foldaway chairs. In the corner, a Yamaha keyboard accompanied a lilac-robed choir. When the pastor took to the stage the congregation burst into hymn with a gusto only surpassed by the rocking, whispered prayers that came after.

Seven weeks ago that congregation was scattered by government officials. On Monday, when Shouwang attempted to hold an outdoor service, 27 people were detained, including a woman in her 80s and a two-year-old child, according to a witness. It’s been the same story for the last seven Sundays, with several hundred detained in total and six church leaders placed under house arrest. The crackdown is seen as part of a larger tightening of state control since the Middle East unrest. Google continues to be tinkered with and Ai Weiwei has all but disappeared.
In China, a country studded with Buddha statues not crucifixes, Christianity has been secretly blooming. Though Protestantism is one of China’s five officially recognised religions (along with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Catholicism), the vast majority of Christians choose to be members of “house” churches, technically illegal gatherings with evangelical leanings, that take place in people’s homes, town halls and empty restaurants.
Founded in 1993 in a home by a small group of believers, Shouwang’s congregation now numbers over 1,000. On my visit, a member explained why worshippers preferred the house churches: “They take Christ as the head of the church, with the bible as the only moral standard. The state-run church is very much influenced by politics.”
The rate of conversion to Christianity in China is staggering. There were about 2 million Christians 30 years ago. Today there are between 23.5 million (the official statistic taken from state-run churches) and 130 million (including house churches) according to China Aid, a Christian charity working in China. Though the latter figure is debated, if it’s in the ballpark it means the number of Christians outstrip Communist party members (78 million) by tens of millions.
And, for the first time, the underground Christians are standing up for themselves. Two weeks ago, 19 house church leaders delivered a petition to the National People’s Congress appealing to lawmakers for the right to worship freely. The letter, which has been posted on the internet, says: “With the incessant growth of the number of urban Christians … the conflict between State and church of this sort is likely to continue to break out. In view of this … we hereby lodge this petition.” The church leaders, who come from eight major cities including Beijing and Shanghai, fear the petition will spark a new round of action against them.
It might, but what the petition signifies is the growing gall of the house churches. When I met with Li, a house church leader in Shanghai, she told me that the government “knows everything”. Li’s church, located in Sheshan just outside Shanghai, took precautions by splitting itself between two venues, and leaders attended monthly meetings to placate officials at teahouses. The important thing was to “let [the officials] know we’re under their control”.
What the government fears is the allegiance of its people to something other than China. Christianity has proved disabling to totalitarian regimes in the past. Just across the Yellow Sea in South Korea, some experts credit the rise of Christianity in the 1960s as one catalyst that pushed the country from dictatorship to democracy. Tellingly, the church leaders opened their letter with: “We are Chinese citizens. We love our country … and obey and respect the authority of the government to maintain social order.”
But, it seems, they’re determined to worship on Sundays. This continued defiance of the government sends a clear message: we are here. To stem the spread of Christianity in China, the party is going to have to do more than place a handful of house church leaders under arrest.

China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985
Email: [email protected]