For some Chinese Communist Party officials, seeing crosses atop churches from a highway are an intolerable symbol of who owns the future. Christianity is transforming the country; a pill too bitter for them to swallow. Thousands of Chinese Christians are protecting a church from demolition with their bodies in a glimpse of the clash to come.
There is a place known as “Jerusalem of the East” in China where one in nine residents are Protestant Christians. That place is Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province and it is home to Sanjian Church, a $4.48 million building that is apparently feared by communist party officials.
The chairman of the province’s ethnic and religious affairs committee said the presence of Christianity was “too excessive and too haphazard.” The party official in charge of the province is said to have been incensed by the shine of large crosses from the highway and told his underlings to have some removed.
The U.S.-based China Aid organization says six crosses were subsequently taken down by the authorities. The Sanjian Church was not only told to take down some crosses, but was told that their church was too big and the top floor had to go. When the church refused, bulldozers and groups of police officers appeared.
Amazingly, the congregation formed a human chain in front of the church—including women, the elderly and the disabled. More and more joined until the number of protestors reportedly reached above 3,000.
One of the ways the Chinese government is trying to control Christianity is through having “official” churches, two Protestant and one Catholic. One example is the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The Voice of the Martyrs has published a study of the organization titled, “The Empty Cross: The False Doctrine of China’s Official Church.”
The government is also oppressing churches by accusing them of violating building regulations. In November, local officials used the tactic against the Nanle County Christian Church in Henan Province. When the pastor and around 20 members of his congregation got together to go to Beijing to ask for intervention, they were arrested for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.”
Earlier this month, the authorities interrupted a three-day worship service to try to bring about the church’s demise. The officials said it is “dilapidated and dangerous” and surrounded the building, stopping Christians from coming to the premise that had intended to join the festival.
When the Christians worshipped in front of the police’s gate blocking access to the church, their musical instruments were taken away. Members of the congregation say that the church’s access to water and power has been severed and those that used cell phones to document the scene are having their devices confiscated.
Officially, the Chinese Constitution grants religious freedom. However, the conditions placed on that freedom give the authorities’ broad powers to curtail religion. For example, the Constitution says, “No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State.”
It also says that “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.” All it takes is for a church to have some kind of contact with a foreigner and a communist party official can conjure up a claim that it’s part of a foreign conspiracy.
According to a 2012 China Aid report, a secret government document outlined a three-phased plan to tackle the network of unregistered “house churches” across the country.
Phase One, covering the first six months of 2012, would be dedicated to secret investigations of the network. Phase Two, covering 2012-2014, would involve the crackdown on the investigated churches. The overall dismantling of the network is to be completed by the end of the phase three in 2022
The 2013 China Aid report found that persecution of Christians increased almost 40% from the previous year. On average, persecution seems to be increasing by 28% every single year.
The bad news for Christians inside China is actually a byproduct of the good news for Christianity in China.
The estimated number of Christians in China varies widely, with the lowest number being around 60 million. Considering that the Communist Party is only 75-million strong, even that minimum estimate is terrifying for the rulers. Many others put the number of Christians as closer to 100 million, while Alex Jurgen Thumm cites estimates of up to 130 million.
The Center for the Global Study of Christianity projects a population of 147.5 million Christians in China by 2020, about 10.6% of the population. In 1970, only a scant 1.2% of the population was Christian. The annual growth rate is 10.86%. Mega-churches are even appearing in China. Thumm describes visiting one in Beijing with 3,000 attendees with different auditoriums so visitors can worship in their native tongue.
According to the According to National Chinese Christian Congress, over 62 million copies of the Bible have been distributed since 1979. In the five-year period from 2007 to the start of 2013, 2.4 million Protestants have been baptized; over 5,000 have been constructed or renovated; over 1,000 pastors have been ordained and there are almost 300 full-time theology teachers. About 4,300 students graduated from seminary and 3,700 are currently studying.
Keep in mind, the statistics in the above paragraph are from an organization allied with the Chinese government. The numbers do not account for the underground church and reflect the party line.
The increasing relevance of Christianity and decreasing relevance of communist ideology is demonstrated in a study of Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. The findings are dramatic:
17 million results for the Bible vs. 60,000 results for Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book”
18 million results for Jesus vs. 4 million results for Chinese President Xi Jinping
41.8 million results for “Christian Congregation” vs. 5.3 million results for the Communist Party
150 million results for Christmas vs. 50 million results for Chinese National Day
The Chinese-Christian church is so well-rooted now that it’s begun evangelizing abroad. In 2008, the leader of the Hong Kong-based Asian Outreach said, “I see the young leaders from the house church in China planting churches in southern Europe, western Europe, and Calgary and Toronto. I see them everywhere. So it’s now the era of ministry from China.”
What’s ironic about the oppression is that even President Xi Jinping is complaining about the lack of spirituality in his country. In September, he was quoted as saying the country was “losing its moral compass.” The solution, he proposed, was “traditional” Chinese faiths like Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism to “help fill a void that has allowed corruption to flourish.”
The communist ideology is fading in China. The government has a choice: Fade away along with it or accommodate the population’s increasing demands for democratic reform, true religious liberty and freedom of information.