Rising Religious Tide

New Churches For Beijing Reflect Surge of Christianity

March 3, 2004


BEIJING -- For years, Christians in Beijing have sought government permission to build new churches, and for years, the government rebuffed them.

Their numbers swelling and their pews packed beyond capacity, many had nowhere to worship but at home. Secretive "house churches" operate throughout the country.

Last month, Chinese authorities announced ground-breaking on two new churches, the first to be built in the capital since the Communist Party took power in 1949, according to the state-run People's Daily.

Why is the officially atheist Communist government suddenly building new churches?

"That's quite simple: the 2008 Olympics," said Rev. Chan Kim-kwong, a historian of religion in China. "Everything started two years ago when Beijing got the Olympic Games."

Beijing city officials brought foreign reporters to the site of one of the two new Protestant churches this week, showing them architectural renderings and models of the structures, due to be completed by the end of this year. With reflecting pools and a flared roof reaching into the heavens, the designs were decidedly modern.

Although the Olympic Summer Games will last only two weeks, Chinese leaders are acutely aware that the impression the city will make on the world will last much longer. The Chinese Catholic Church plans to build a large new national seminary in Beijing and has been giving language training to its clergy so they can celebrate Mass in German, French and other languages, according to Chan.

"It's not just the games," he said. "It's the image of Beijing as an international city, an open, modern city."

Christianity has been growing rapidly in China. Official figures put the number of Protestants at 15 million and Catholics at 10 million. Tens of millions more Christians, including Roman Catholics, belong to unauthorized churches.

Decades of political turmoil, intensified in recent years by jarring social changes and unbridled economic development, have frayed much of traditional Chinese culture.

"There is spiritual longing in society," said Gao Ying, a minister at the Chongwenmen Church in Beijing who has a degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. "There are young people, intellectuals, seeking meaning."

Officially, unless a church is registered with the state, it's considered illegal. While many "house churches" are tolerated, their leaders are occasionally jailed.

Rev. Yu Xinli, head of the Beijing Christian Council, admitted the capital has 700 to 800 house churches, largely because the official churches are too full to accommodate all the worshippers. The city has only nine Protestant churches for its 40,000 followers, and attendance is growing at a rate of 1,000 a year, he said. Chinese Catholics in Beijing also number at least 40,000 and have about 15 churches.

"Nowadays, on Sundays, some churches have to give five services a day to meet the needs," said Yu.

Compass Direct, a California-based Christian news service that reports on worldwide religious persecution, said last month that an internal government survey found at least 3,000 unregistered churches in the city. Most had congregations of about 20 members, with churches dividing when they reached 70 to avoid detection by authorities.

"It was not news to Beijing, but maybe they were not aware of the extent of it," said Chan, who is also an executive at the Hong Kong Christian Council, which operates independently of religious authorities in Beijing.

The Chinese government is wary of any organized group that is outside of its control.

The annual State Department report on human rights, issued last week, contains the usual list of violations of freedom of worship in China, including arrests, beatings and church closings.

Yet the repression is far from consistent. The report also said some areas experienced "a greater freedom to worship than in the past. ... In some areas, supervision of religious activity was minimal, and registered and unregistered churches were treated similarly by authorities."

With the two new Protestant churches, each able to seat 1,500 people, the government presumably hopes to draw Christians away from the underground churches to the state-sanctioned ones.

However, one group it is not likely to lure are the overseas returnees. Large numbers of young Chinese who worked or studied abroad are returning home, and increasingly, they're coming back as Christians. For the most part, they find the state-backed churches too old-fashioned, Chan said.

"Those are well-to-do people," he said. "They have connections. You don't touch them. I know there are many Christians there. They don't go to (government) churches. They meet in those big villas with chauffeurs."

The specter of a growing population of well-connected Christians -- in sharp contrast to the conventional wisdom that the rising religious tide is concentrated in the countryside -- is one that surely vexes Beijing.

A new book called "Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power," argues that Christianity could spread to one-third of China's population in 30 years and has already been embraced by top party members.

Written by David Aikman, a former Beijing correspondent for Time magazine and published last October, the book is not sold in Beijing but has been under intensive study by senior Chinese leaders, Chan said.

Yu said the Beijing Christian Council had been asking the government for new land since 1998. The two new plots, one in a southwestern suburb and the other on the eastern edge of the city, were chosen in 2002, the year after Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. The government will pay $2.4 million for the construction of each church. In return, the Council will exchange about a dozen smaller pieces of land it owns in the city center.

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches were extensive land-owners before the Communist Party came to power. The decade-long Cultural Revolution saw much of their holdings shuttered, confiscated and nationalized. By the early 1980s, Chinese authorities eased their restrictions and the churches got some of their land back.

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