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China opens door to Christianity - of a patriotic sort

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2004


Yao Chun works for an upscale private firm, has a polished "corporate" persona, and loves China. But as an evangelical Christian he also loves the Gospels, which he encountered as a student in the US, describing them as "a light I never experienced before." In China, his strong faith makes for life in a gray zone of semilegality.

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He visits the largest official church in Beijing, but the crowds on Sunday often force him into the basement with a closed circuit screen. "We feel strange praying to a TV," he quips. Mostly, Yao attends an illegal "home church." The small group rents an apartment for Sunday services and weekday study. The Bible study is most frowned upon since officials feel such gatherings can incubate dissent, Yao says. So he and friends sing and pray in low voices.

Yet despite the challenges of practicing Christianity in China, there are signs that the once near pariah faith is being given more latitude. Most striking is what appears to be a public admittance by Beijing that Christianity is not only on the rise but is growing rapidly - and that the church is benefiting a spiritually hungry population that is growing more "individualistic."

The change is part of a new official formula that is fitfully taking shape here: a basic and perhaps grudging acceptance of faith, including low-level experiments with religious exchange abroad - so long as Chinese believers profess loyalty and patriotism to the state.

"Christianity is growing quickly here, faster maybe than in any other part of the world," says Gao Ying, vice president of the Beijing Christian Council. "Individualism is growing, and people need to feel love and community.

"We encourage the home church members to worship, and to register themselves as Christians so they can worship under the law."

Ms. Gao, a theologian trained at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., was speaking Tuesday at an unusual foreign media event: an unveiling of blueprints for two huge new churches.

Scheduled for completion this year, the new Protestant churches in Beijing will hold some 4,000 to 5,000 worshipers, easing the crowding at the nine other official churches that Protestants may attend. At least five other churches are also planned.

In recent months Yao and other underground Christians in Beijing speak of a more relaxed official policy. But they remain quite reticent.

"The police have been leaving us alone," Yao adds. "But I feel the night is very close to me. I always feel the night. The web of the state is near. They know who we are. They can easily pick us up. They are good hunters."

Last week, as China's National People's Congress prepared to meet, a number of political and religious activists were whisked out of town. On March 5, Hua Huiqi, a house church leader was put under house arrest. When he protested, he was arrested and later beaten, along with his wife, Wei Jumei, who lost a tooth in the assault, according to Human Rights in China. His parents' apartment was raided by police, who reportedly took the family life savings, some $12,000.

The contradictions of Christian growth in mainland China are manifold, and are reflected by a policy of simultaneous acceptance and tightening, as officials try to grapple with it. The spiritual message of the New Testament has often clashed with the temporal message of Marxism in China. Experts point out the contradictions of religious searching in a newly mammon-obsessed culture. There are fears inside a rigid communist party hierarchy bent on control, as it confronts a highly fluid set of unofficial church movements - charismatic, pentecostal - that in some ways appear to be developing denominational forms, as pointed out in a fresh assessment of faith titled "Jesus in Beijing," by David Aikman, a former Time magazine bureau chief.