When the pastor of a Protestant church in Shandong Province was summoned by municipal officials in 1980, he was taken by surprise. Told that the government wanted him to reopen the church, which had been closed since 1966, he was willing to make a new beginning but was unsure whether former members of the congregation would support him. He contacted a few other Christians in Jinan, the capital of Shandong, and prepared for services in a church still occupied by a factory.
``At first we had only five or six people who weren't afraid to be seen in church on Sunday,'' the pastor recalls.
Now the church property has been returned to members and the congregation has grown to several hundred, though fewer than before the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the group was disbanded.
``The policy is loosening and people are losing their fear of identifying with religion,'' says another Protestant minister at the Qingdao Christian Church on the Shandong coast. His church, erected by German Lutherans in 1908, is a handsome stone building set on a hill. It also reopened in 1980, and up to 1,000 worshipers now attend Sunday services from an urban population of 2 million.
``We can't say there is no discrimination now, but the atmosphere is much better than before,'' the minister says.
The rebuilding of China's Christian churches has not been a task for the faint-hearted. It has required stubborn commitment by the God-worshipers, as Christians were once called in China, and ingenuity and political adeptness by church leaders. The result has been that Christianity has experienced a period of ``tranquil and steady growth,'' according to the official New China News Agency.
With some 4,000 churches and tens of thousands of ``house churches'' where people meet informally in private homes, especially in rural communities, Chinese Christians have resurfaced in the past decade with their faith stronger and their roots set deeper in Chinese soil.
``Religious persecution during the Cultural Revolution helped revitalize the Protestant community,'' says Zhao Fusan, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and an ordained Anglican clergyman.
The Rev. Mr. Zhao says that the social turbulence in China during the 1960s turned many people to look within themselves to find the meaning of life and consolation from the harshness of their experience. ``The turbulent social conditions provided a catalyst for that to take place,'' Zhao told reporters in Peking.
Some Chinese Christians say, however, that the vitality of Christianity has been sapped by state supervision of its institutions and restrictions on religious freedom. They also suspect that some ``patriotic'' clergy, who are members of the Communist Party, have infiltrated their ranks and keep church activities under close surveillance.
The party has seen Christianity as the most threatening of the formal religions, (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism), because of its strong institutions and its Western associations. This is especially true of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been considered counterrevolutionary. Chinese Catholics were forced to cut their ties to the Vatican in 1957, though some have continued worshiping in an ``underground'' church loyal to Rome.
Because of this strain in loyalties and the importance of ritual in Catholic worship, the numbers of Catholics have not increased as much as the Protestants, one church official says. Officially there are 3 million Catholics, the same as in 1949. Church leaders estimate there are 4 million Protestants compared with 700,000 in 1948, when the last statistics were published before the communist victory.
Protestants were also forced to change their identity in 1957 and to merge their denominations under the leadership of the nationalistic Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, a government-run organization requiring that the church be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Chinese Protestants now consider themselves to be ``post-denominational.'' ``Denominations are an artificial thing for Chinese Christians,'' Zhao says.
An older generation of priests and ministers has been crucial to church revival, especially since a generation has lapsed without recruiting new clergy. The church is prohibited from teaching youth in Sunday schools, though a few hundred students are now being trained for the ministry in newly opened seminaries.
Churches are financed by government subsidies and donations from members, but most are short of funds and may not accept contributions from abroad.
``We have churches where finances are not so good and they must struggle to support themselves,'' says Bishop Ding Guanxun, president of the Nanking Theological Seminary and leader of the Protestant churches. ``We want them to struggle, because we think in that way they'll solve their problem.''
One Catholic church in Changchun, in northeast China has taken advantage of the economic reforms and gone into business to meet its financial needs. The church sells building materials, edible oils, fish, and soda drinks from a company based on its property.
``If we didn't establish this company to support ourselves, the government would have to subsidize the church,'' one of the lay leaders explains. The 1,500-member church expects that later this year it will be able to forgo the government's monthly subsidy of 1,500 yuan ($450) and depend solely on its commercial profits.
Despite the example of the Changchun church, church activities are constrained by a narrow interpretation of religious freedom which bans their involvement in education, social, or political activities. Provincial officials often interpret the party's policy on religion even more strictly than in the large cities.
Some Chinese Christians also distrust the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, since, in the 1950s, its leaders cooperated with the party in suppressing religion. Evangelical Christians especially have tried to operate independently of this official supervision and have often faced detention as authorities try to stop the spread of informal ``house churches.''
Amnesty International reports that Protestants in 10 provinces were arrested last year for periods of up to three months. At least one itinerant preacher, the Rev. Song Yude, is serving a lengthy jail sentence of eight years for holding unauthorized meetings of the ``house churches,'' Amnesty says.
Catholic priests who have remained loyal to the Vatican are also in prison, though Amnesty reports that 10 were released in the past year. One Hong Kong newspaper reported that 20 priests are still in prison, though the number has not been confirmed. The best known Catholic to be imprisoned was Gong Pinmei, the former bishop of Shanghai. Bishop Gong was released in 1985 after 30 years in prison and recently received permission to travel to the United States.
The churches' relations with the outside world remain a sensitive issue, because Christianity came to China through foreign missionaries whom communist history portrays as agents of Western imperialism. Church leaders have tried to overcome this stigma by making themselves acceptable to the Communst Party and the Three-Self movement, which requires the churches to be independent of foreign support.
In the past, party officials have suggested that Christianity might not survive in such isolation. Observers say that by becoming self-sufficient, the churches are protecting themselves against criticism that Chinese Christians are a remnant of foreign influence from the past and not a native movement.
``If they make the church solely Chinese, they have eliminated one of the principal weapons against them,'' said Richard Cain, president of the School of Theology at Claremont College in California, during a visit to China last year. ``This has to be done by themselves. Westerners can't become a catalyst in this.''
Dr. Cain is a church historian who has taken a special interest in China. He compared the experience of the Chinese church today to the transformation of the early Christian church in the first three centuries AD. ``They are constantly dealing with questions of what is true faith, what is church leadership,'' he said. ``They have had to make compromises, and finally they've evolved a working relationship with the state.'' The pitfalls, he said, include ``the danger of becoming too indigenous, of diluting the Christian faith and not having a world view.''