August 20, 2008
By Elizabeth Weise
BEIJING — As the piano strikes a chord, the choir launches into a hymn, members' red and white robes bright against the beige walls of the room crammed with more than 100 worshipers.
This is City Revival Church, one of the larger unofficial, or "house," churches in Beijing. For three years, it has rented conference rooms in an office building to house its growing flock.
Officially, China allows freedom of worship for five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. Unofficially, most faiths are tolerated, though some more than others.
City Revival, which is not state-registered, is semi-tolerated, but it's full to near bursting. A video camera sends a feed across the hall to where another 100 worshipers meet. There are three services each Sunday as well as 70 children in Sunday school.
China's Communist government is officially atheist. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, many temples, mosques, churches and pagodas were destroyed. By the late 1970s, attitudes became less harsh. Today the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, with restrictions.
For example, a law forbids bringing religious products for more than personal use. A Wyoming-based group discovered that Sunday when it tried to bring 300 Chinese Bibles into the country and had them confiscated.
Bibles are printed at just one plant, run by a government-backed group for use in officially sanctioned churches. Though they can be purchased in some bookstores, they're hard to find.
But Christianity is booming, despite the restrictions.
Zhenbao Lian, an attorney, converted in 2003. "I never thought I could feel so moved," Lian, 40, says. "I knew that it was God's love that was filling me. It couldn't come from humans."
In his view, many in China today are seeking fulfillment in material wealth. "But only God can truly satisfy them," he says. He feels comfortable sharing his faith with friends and family, as long as it's one-on-one. "The government doesn't interfere."
Fenggang Yang of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., visited for three weeks in July and says things slowly seem to be getting better.
"More people of faith in China are willing to speak out," he said.
Ostensibly, any of the five recognized religions can register with the Office of Administration of Ethnic Religious Affairs. But then government has control over the appointment of clergy, sermons and outreach. So many Chinese Christians instead attend house churches, which initially met in worshipers' homes.
Approved churches are crowded, but even more people attend the "black market" houses of worship, Yang says.
Accompanied by Pastor Jian-An, President Bush makes remarks after attending services at the state-registered Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church in Beijing during his visit to the Olympics.
Other religions face similar restrictions. Tibetan Buddhists are under great scrutiny because China associates them with anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet. Islam frequently is associated with would-be secesion groups in China's West and North.
In a bold move, City Revival in 2006 applied to register with the state. It was rejected a year later. In May, police raided a service and took names of members. Since then, they have worshiped in peace.
Today, many Christians say they're free to practice. Xiang Mao, 30, a university professor, was introduced to the Gospel as a student. "I was searching for my way in life," he says. Now, he attends weekly. "I feel free to be a Christian in China."
One way around the de facto ban on new churches is to start off-shoot "fellowships" at registered churches. One such group is the Little Lamb Fellowship, loosely connected to the state-registered Kuanjie Protestant Church, which President Bush attended during the Olympics. With its blond-wood walls and large video screens, it wouldn't be out of place in any large U.S. city. But there are differences.
The day Bush visited, prominent Christian activist Hua Huiqi said he was detained by plainclothes security agents and released only after Bush had left.
At Little Lamb, most of the congregation seems to be in their 30s or younger. That's typical, Yang says. Of the five accepted religions, Christianity has been growing the fastest, especially among urban, educated Chinese.
In the old days, people belonged to their work unit or their commune. In the developing market economy, those work units have lost those social functions, and many people have moved far from their families for work. "But people need some social support and network," he says. "Christianity provided this."
For Lian, that rings true. "We're all brothers and sisters in Christ," the architect says. "Even though we're different people, we all come from different places, we're all the same here before God."