Persecuted in prayer
Michael Sainsbury, China correspondent
From: The Australian
December 24, 2009 12:00AM
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IT has been six weeks since worshippers at Beijing’s Shouwang House Church were abruptly shunted out of their long-time home in a nondescript low-rise building.
A week after their landlord succumbed to pressure from authorities and turfed them on to the street, more than 500 church members gathered outside the east gate of Haidian Park.
The icy winds that blew at their faces had also dumped the earliest and biggest snowfalls over two weeks since records began in 1949.
Authorities quickly erected an iron gate at the park’s entrance, forcing churchgoers to meet wherever they could find suitable premises. On the eve of Christmas, China’s Christians are once again under attack.
The latest trouble began in September when about 400 people attacked Christians attending the Golden Lamp, which had been built on the outskirts of the town of Lifen in central Shanxi province. About 70 church members were hospitalised. Later that month more than a dozen church leaders were arrested and paramilitary forces occupied the church, an eight-story edifice that had been constructed to serve a congregation of 50,000.
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Their early Christmas present: in early December five pastors were sentenced to prison terms of up to seven years on charges including illegal assembly and five more were sentenced to two years in a labour camp.
There was another string of incidents in early November.
First, prominent Christian academic Fan Yafeng was sacked from his job at a government think tank, the China Academy of Social Sciences, then police blocked access to Shanghai’s fast-growing Wangbang church. “This is the latest plan by the government to try to close house churches,” Fan tells The Australian. In 2005, authorities tried to register all Christians to bring them into official government churches.
Another outspoken Beijing Christian and legal-aid worker, Zhang Dajun says: “While these incidents happen from time to time, this seems to be an extraordinary approach that is synchronised and orchestrated at a very high level.”
Still, periodic harassment has certainly not hampered the rise of the Christian church in China.
In fact, as a growth story, it leaves even China’s remarkable economic miracle in its distant wake, with numbers of churchgoers approaching 100 million, up from 500,000 in 1949 and two million in 1978.
There are two distinct arms to the Christian churches in China.
The first is effectively two groups sanctioned by the central government that operate under strict rules. They are the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council – which local churchgoers say are effectively the same – and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Three-Self is short-hand for self-governance, self-support and self-propagation. The movement, loyal to the Communist Party rather than foreign churches, was founded in 1951, officially began in 1954 and was quickly co-opted by the authorities to help control Christians within its all embracing arms. The Catholic group does not recognise the Pope and is seen as schismatic by many Catholics across the world.
There have been several attempts by the Vatican and the Chinese government to establish diplomatic relations – and recognition for the Pope – during the past few decades.
The Chinese government has said there are about 20 million in official Protestant churches and 10 million in the official Catholic Church.
But a far bigger movement, although more difficult to estimate its size, is the so-called “house” or family churches, which have proliferated outside official government control.
Fan estimates that this loose network of independent churches has about 63 million members. About 70 per cent are evangelical.
“There are between 80 and 100 million Christians in China and this is growing by least 5 per cent each year,” Fan says.
Says Zhang Yaojie, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of the Arts: “There has been no fundamental change in the attitude of government and it’s still cautious of Christianity, especially towards house churches.”
The first signs of Christianity in China date back to 7th-century missionaries. Spreading the word picked up after the opium wars of the mid-1800s as China began to fracture. By the time of the communist revolution in 1949, there were about 500,000 Christians in a population of 450 million. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to the early 1970s, Christians were terrorised and killed.
Fan believes that the death of Mao Zedong, and with him the fierce and uncompromising ideology of the revolution, left Chinese people with a gaping hole in their belief system.
Communism had ripped down millennia of cultural beliefs and Christianity was ready to jump in.
Pouring fuel on that particular fire was Deng Xiaoping’s economically successful new strategy of “opening up”, which led to the tearing down of social institutions Mao’s revolution had built up.
“From 1978 to 1983 there was a period when the Gospel was spread openly and freely,” Fan says.
“Merchants from the southern Christian centre of old foreign treaty port and southern business centre Wenzhou would travel around the country spreading capitalism and the Gospel.”
The first crackdown was in 1983, as government authorities became concerned about the growth of what could be a rival power base, loyal to God rather than the Communist Party.
“Then 1989 was a very important year for spreading the Gospel,” Fan says. The massacre at Tiananmen Square left few with any illusions about the party’s capabilities, he says.
“The orthodox ideology had lost its appeal, but people have spiritual need to care for each other, to help each other,” Zhang says.
“In the rural areas, most of the believers are old or children, or women, not many strong labourers. This illustrates that the `weak-sided’ people have strong demand for religious belief.”
Forced underground for so long and often with little contact with Western Christians, many Chinese house churches picked up local cultural traditions and mingled them with more traditional Christian practices and beliefs.
Some Chinese peculiarities have been added, Zhang says.
“For instance, I noticed in the countryside people will have meals together after mass; some Christians in rural areas take Jesus Christ as a divine figure, not much different to Buddha; or maybe the only difference is Buddha is already a Chinese divine, and Jesus a divine from the West.
“Some Chinese priests invented their own hymns, with words written by themselves, and I can tell the resemblance of their hymns with the melody of Chinese folk music, even pop music.”
But although Christianity in China has traditionally been based in the countryside, with the provinces of Henan and Zhejiang being the main centres, in the decade or so the growth has switched to urban areas.
“Since 1997 the urban house church movement has been rising quickly and Beijing has become the centre with the most house churches,” Fan says.
Originally composed of women, old men and children, Christianity is now appealing to academics, the middle classesand particularly students.
“In the cities, where many Christians are college students and white-collared people, their demand are more spiritual, seeking spiritual comfort, mutual care and interaction,” Zhang says.
Twenty-year old Wang Fang is from Taian city in the populous coastal province of Shandong.
“Believing in God makes me feel relieved from the skin disease I have, and I hope God can heal me,” she says.
Wang used to be a worker in Tianjin in a textile factory but moved to Beijing in July to live in her uncle’s home and goes to hospital regularly.
“My father works in a construction site in Tianjin and he is the only one in my family with an income now,” Wang says.
“My mother doesn’t work. She is 40. Several years ago she got ill, and a neighbour told her to convert, God could cure her. She did, and she recovered.
“I only finished junior middle school and most attendees of the house church I go to are from the university area.
“I like being together with them, they are knowledgeable, and I can learn a lot from them. I’m prepared to be dedicated to God for all my life.”
Zhang Ronggong, 29, a journalist, has been influenced by his family’s beliefs.
“Only Jesus Christ can better explain the world and human being existing in the absurdness, and save every helpless individual soul,” he says.
“I was born in countryside in Hebei province, my grandmother believes in Catholicism, my other grandmother believed in Buddhism, but grandfather was a Christian. When I was 15 and 16, I read a lot of stories in the Bible by grandfather. He was in Nanchong, Sichuan province, a poor rural area, raising six children including my mother.
“Life was very harsh for him. He was caught by cancer in 2006 but because he believed in God, so he could maintain a very good mentality until he passed away one year later.
“The church I go to has people with similar backgrounds, like college students, white-collared, middle-class and self-employed.”
Bur Zhang, who will soon be baptised, faces a dilemma that many other minority groups confront in China.
“I won’t tell my friends and colleges that I will be a Christian, though I know people now are very tolerant to others’ religious belief,” he says.
Yu Jiarong, professor at the Rural Development Institute of China Academy of Social Sciences, travelled to 10 provinces in 2007-08, researching the church. He says the government should should not treat religion as an enemy but use it as a tool.
“The more crackdowns, the more rapid development of house churches,” Yu says.
“The form of house church is more attractive to some believers and more in accordance with Chinese tradition.
“Suppression will force religion to be secretive, while secretive religions can more easily become cults and spread even faster.”
It’s a dilemma for the Chinese government. Crushing a local quasi-religious groups such as Falan Gong is easier precisely because they are home-grown.
The reaction from Turkey, in particular, and other Muslim nations to the sectarian violence in Xinjiang this July shows the difficulty of targeting, even obliquely, religious groups with strong international networks.
Many observers believe the government prefers the centralised Catholic model, rather than the looser networks and more anarchic style of evangelical house churches. That’s why they are being singled out.