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China's conversation with God gets louder

Christianity, long repressed by the nation's communist leaders, is booming. Officials often decide to look the other way.

June 29, 2008|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — The Rev. Jin Mingri peered out from the pulpit and delivered an unusual appeal: "Please leave," the 39-year-old pastor urged his followers, who were packed, standing-room-only on a Sunday afternoon, into a converted office space in China's capital. "We don't have enough seats for the others who want to come, so please, only stay for one service a day."

A choir in hot-pink robes stood to his left, beside a guitarist and a drum set bristling with cymbals. Children in a modern playroom beside the sanctuary punctuated the service with squeals and tantrums. It was a busy day at a church that, on paper, does not exist.

Christianity -- repressed, marginalized and, in many cases, illegal in China for more than half a century -- is sweeping the country, swamping churches and posing a sensitive challenge to the officially atheist ruling Communist Party.

By some estimates, Christian churches in China, most of them underground, have roughly 70 million members, about as many as the party itself. A growing number of those Christians are in fact party members.

Christianity is thriving in part because it offers a moral framework to citizens adrift in an age of Wild West capitalism that has not only exacted a heavy toll in corruption and pollution but also harmed the global image of products labeled "Made in China."

Some Chinese Christians say their faith is actually a boon for the party, because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to sustaining communist rule.

"With economic development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly," prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin's church as worshipers bowed their heads. "Holy Father, please save the Chinese people's soul."

At the same time, Christianity is driving citizens to be more politically assertive, emboldening them to push for more freedoms and testing the party's willingness to adapt. For decades, most of China's Christians worshiped in secret churches, known as "house churches," that shunned attention for fear of arrest on charges such as "disturbing public order."

But in a sign of Christianity's growing prominence, in scores of interviews for a joint project of the Tribune and PBS' "Frontline/World," clerical leaders and worshipers from coastal boomtowns to inland villages publicly detailed their religious lives for the first time.

They voiced the belief that the time has come to proclaim their place in Chinese society as the world focuses on China and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics in August.

"We have nothing to hide," said Jin, a former Communist Party member who broke away from the state church last year to found his Zion Church.

Jin embodies a historic change: After centuries of foreign efforts to implant Christianity in China, the growing popularity of the religion is being led not by missionaries but by evangelical citizens at home. Where Christianity once was confined largely to poor villages, it's now spreading into urban centers, often with tacit approval from the regime.

It reaches into the most influential corners of Chinese life: Intellectuals disillusioned by the 1989 crackdown on dissidents at Tiananmen Square are placing their loyalty in faith, not politics; tycoons fed up with corruption are seeking an ethical code; and party members are daring to argue that their religion does not put them at odds with the government.

The boundaries of what is legal and what is not are constantly shifting. A new church or Sunday school, for instance, might be permissible one day and taboo the next, because local officials have broad latitude to interpret laws on religious gatherings.

Overall, though, the government is allowing churches to be more open and active than ever, signaling a new tolerance of faith in public life. President Hu Jintao even held an unprecedented Politburo "study session" on religion last year, in which he told China's 25 most powerful leaders that "the knowledge and strength of religious people must be mustered to build a prosperous society."

This rise, driven by evangelical Protestants, reflects a wider spiritual awakening in China. As communism fades into today's free-market reality, many Chinese describe a "crisis of faith" and seek solace from mystical Taoist sects, Bahai temples and Christian megachurches.

Today, the government counts 21 million Catholics and Protestants -- a 50% increase in less than 10 years -- though the underground population is far larger. The World Christian Database's estimate of 70 million Christians amounts to 5% of the population, second only to Buddhists.

At a time when Christianity in Western Europe is dwindling, China's believers are redrawing the world's religious map with a growing community that already exceeds all the Christians in Italy.

And increasing Christian clout in China has the potential to alter relations with the United States and other nations.

But much about the future of faith in China is uncertain, shaped most vividly in bold new evangelical churches such as Zion, where a soft-spoken preacher and his fervent flock do not yet know just how far the Communist Party is prepared to let them grow.

"We think that Christianity is good for Beijing, good for China," Jin said. "But it may take some time before our intention is understood, trusted, even respected by the authorities. We even have to consider the price we may have to pay."

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Researcher Xu Wan contributed to this report.

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