QINGYUAN, CHINA — A LARGE mural of Jesus tending sheep dominates the front of the Qingyuan Protestant Church. But instead of Palestine, the mural's backdrop depicts the jagged mountains of Guangdong Province.
This building on a busy street in the older part of Qingyuan, a city of about 3 million, is not the original edifice, however. Like so many Christian churches and other places of worship, it was confiscated without compensation during the Cultural Revolution and turned to other uses.
When a period of religious tolerance returned to China in the 1980s, Qingyuan's Christians did not get their old church back. But they did receive compensation from the government. With that money, the church opened its present edifice.
When Wendell Karsen of the Hong Kong Christian Council first visited Guangdong Province in 1978 he was hard pressed to find any church open. ''Those that I came across had broken windows or were filled with coal,'' he says. Others were turned into factories or workers' dormitories.
In recent years a certain rectification has taken place. Indeed, one of the biggest issues that confronted Chinese Christians as they resurfaced was how to get their old churches back or, failing that, to receive compensation or back rent. It is a measure of the government's current religious toleration that it is willing to negotiate these issues.
In some provinces the training of lay leaders includes some legal education to enable church leaders to better argue their case in property disputes. Chinese church publications are also full of articles about the rights of churches to have their property back and provide case studies.
In Jinan, capital of Shandong Province, more than 100 church property disputes have been resolved recently, according to the United Methodist China Program. Often, it required going to court.
In Qingdao, the work unit that had occupied a local church refused to pay rent. The church went to court and not only got its property back but back payment for rent it was owed. In Anqiu city an old church was torn down to make way for a shopping center. The church was given compensation and land where a new, larger edifice has been built.
The churches do not always get the better part of the deal. Many older buildings were on prime locations in the middle of booming coastal cities where property values have soared. They have sometimes been fobbed off with less valuable land.
Yet the remarkable thing is not whether the Christian churches get the better end of the deal, but that there is any deal at all.