Chinese worship publicly -- under wary eye of state

On a hot Sunday in July last year, a Protestant church east of China's ancient capital opened its doors to worshipers for the first time in 20 years. Although it was never announced publicly, word of its reopening circulated for weeks in the city of Xian. Hours before the service started, the church filled, and Chinese Protestants of every age, rank, and class held the suffocating summer heat at bay with a fluttering of bamboo fans. I arrived late. Few of the Chinese even knew there was a church in this area, and three times I was misdirected, but finally a boy led me through a labyrinth of narrow, walled back streets. I parked my bike at the gates of what appeared to be a factory.

Anywhere else in the world, an industrial yard would be considered an unlikely site for a church, but in China it was typical. Those churches, mosques, and temples not razed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were often converted into schools or factories. The Protestant church I was now seeking was just one building among many within the walls of a heavy-equipment storage yard. I did not recognize it as a church at first. There was no cross or spire, and a steamroller was parked near its entrance. The building was indeed a church, however, a severe version of late-19th-century northern English design, built here about the turn of the century. For the last two decades, it had housed machinery to repair roads.

As the only foreigner in attendance, I was immediately ushered to the front pew, which a Chinese family was forced to vacate despite my protests. The minister, buttoned into a black robe, punctuated his sermon in Chinese with fierce gestures. He was old enough to have been ordained before the Communist Revolution, meaning that, like other members of the clergy, he had passed through imprisonment, perhaps torture, before pledging his loyalty to party and state and resuming the pulpit.

The church itself showed little evidence of the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, except that it was almost bare -- no paintings or pictures, no crucifixes, no stained glass in the rows of windowpanes. The industrial green walls were freshly plastered. Garish lamps in green and red glass beads hung from the the high cement ceiling.

The most vibrant feature was the choir, mostly composed of middle-aged women. They wore new white choir robes and sang with vigor. The congregation stood, joining in Chinese versions of ``Holy, Holy, Holy'' and ``What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'' There were not enough hymnals, but most seemed to know the words.

A second minister now launched into his sermon. The congregation was silent and attentive despite the rising humidity. The elderly worshipers, of which there were many, came dressed in white to take communion, but the church proved far too small to hold all who came. Many stood outside, peering in through the windows at the ends of each row of pews. In most ways, however, this resembled other Protestant services under way around the world that Sunday, except in terms of history.

This was the second Protestant church to reopen since 1980 in Xian, the birthplace of Christianity in China. Thirteen centuries ago, the first Christian church in China was built here. Xian, the terminus of the fabled Silk Road, was then the largest city in the world. It was also the Eastern crossroads of the world's great religions. Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Nestorians settled within its walls. The Nestorians were members of a Christian sect that had broken with the Roman Catholic Church. They came from Syria to Xian in the 7th century and built several churches over the next two centuries. A large stone tablet carved in AD 781, and now on display at the Forest of Steles pavilion in Xian, records the history of early Christianity in China.

By the 9th century, Christianity had disappeared, and it did not become a significant movement for another thousand years. Early in this century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were running important schools and hospitals in China, but with the Communist Revolution of 1949, virtually all Christian activity ended.

In 1954, the various Protestant denominations, including Anglicanism, were united in a single, state-controlled church which was to be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. Under this Three-Self Patriotic Movement, Christians were cut off from all foreign contact and forbidden to proselytize. In opposition to the official Three-Self Patriotic Church, an underground movement quickly evolved. These underground home-churches multiplied after 1966, when all Christian worship was outlawed and the clergy jailed for the duration of the Cultural Revolution.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was not revived again until 1980. Usually two official churches, one Protestant and one Catholic, were then reopened in each major Chinese city. Officials today count 3 million Protestants in China, but the underground home-churches boast that their enrollment is 10 times that figure. Even 30 million Protestants would not be a significant number in a nation of 1 billion, but xenophobic authorities throughout China seem to fear an ``outbreak'' of religious fervor. In the last 18 months in Xian alone, for example, I was told of at least 20 cases in which underground Christian leaders were arrested. Clearly the government wants to force Protestants and Catholics into the open -- into the official ``showcase'' churches -- where tighter controls are exercised.

The Chinese Christians seem unperturbed by such crackdowns, but I detected an underlying apprehension. The memory of persecution is strong, the clergy is circumspect, and worshipers know that all the churches could be closed again, without warning. At the same time, most feel that this is no more likely than the sudden suspension of all the other liberal economic and cultural reforms sweeping China today.

For the time being, then, a few thousand among the few million citizens of Xian are quietly practicing Christianity again. They are doing so openly, and sometimes boldly. As I left the Protestant services in east Xian, I met a vendor at the gate who embodied this bolder spirit. He was crouching over two open crates of Bibles. He had no vendor's license and he would not tell me how the Bibles had come into his hands, but he seemed in no way fearful of arrest or suspicious of my questions.

Many of China's intellectuals speak of two hopes they hold for the future of their nation: that the economy will be enriched by private enterprise and that the realm of personal choice and belief will be widened. On that hot Sunday last July, at least, this unintimidated bookseller seemed to give expression to both hopes. He did a brisk business with the churchgoers that afternoon.

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