June 17, 1998
China's Churches: Glad, and Bitter, Tidings
By ERIK ECKHOLM
ANJING -- New Bibles stream forth from a computerized printing press in this onetime southern capital at a rate of two and a half million a year, for sale to Christians all over China. Since opening in 1988, the publishing company, a joint venture of the Government-approved Protestant Church and a global charity, United Bible Societies, has shipped out 18 million inexpensive Bibles, an astonishing turn in a country that only a few decades ago tried to stamp out religion for good.
The Bibles are quickly bought and eagerly used. In downtown Nanjing on any Sunday morning at St. Paul's Church, one of the city's seven legal Protestant churches, the pews overflow with more than 1,000 worshipers at each of two services, while hundreds more watch from another building on closed-circuit television.
|Workers at the Nanjing Amity Printing Company checked and stacked Bibles. The plant can produce millions a year, but it is allowed to print considerably fewer.||At St. Paul's Church in Nanjing, China, Christians from Yunnan sang hymns in their local dialect.|
With hymns, a sermon and closing recitation of the Lord's Prayer, the services here and at thousands of other churches around the country have the rhythms of mainstream Protestant services anywhere. Like many urban churches, this one has a preponderance of older women, some of whom were Christian before the Communist takeover in 1949, but around the country many men and women, young and old, are embracing Jesus Christ.
CHRISTIANITY'S HISTORY OF CONFLICT IN CHINA 1500's
Jesuit missionaries arrive, establishing a Roman Catholic presence in China and making inroads at the Ming court.
Frist Protestant missionary arrives, from Britain.
One result of the opium Wars is an official tolerance of Protestant and Catholic activities.
The Taiping Rebellion, led by a Christian-influenced cult leader, nearly brings down the empire.
The Boxer Rebellion, an anti-Christian and anti-Western uprising, is quelled by foreign troops. Missionary activity goes on.
Sun Yat-sen, a Christian, and other revolutionaries oust the Qing Dynasty.
Communists under Mao Zedong take over. Missionarie are expeled and official "patriotic" churches are founded. Others are repressed.
The Cultural Revolution begins, led by Mao. Under attack, open religious activity ceases; many Christians are jailed.
Deng Xiaoping loosens restrictions on religious practices.
Christianity spreads, but repression of pro-Vatican Catholic churches and unofficial Protestant churches continues.
The Government tries to force illegal churches to register; offical churches thrive.
Such open, joyous displays of worship were unusual in the 1950's, as the Communists reshaped China, and unthinkable during Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when churches were burned and those Christians who were not jailed could only hold clandestine prayer meetings, and dared not own a Bible.
Yet even as Bibles flow and churchgoers worship, at least scores of Protestant and Catholic leaders are held in in labor camps or jails for refusing to bow to Government control. While the confirmed number of imprisoned Christians appears to be lower than is often asserted abroad, their travails are a telling sign that religion here is not truly free.
Just last month, security agents reportedly razed an unapproved Catholic church in Fujian, while in Hebei, to the north, they arrested a pro-Vatican bishop who was too energetically promoting his faith. Last fall, the leader of a fervent born-again sect known as the Weepers was sentenced to a three-year term for disturbing public order. Millions of other Christians who reject the official church must practice their faith with a wary eye, and even those who embrace the Government cannot publicly proclaim or spread their faith as they might wish to.
The charge of religious persecution -- of Christians and also Tibetan Buddhists and some Muslim groups -- has emerged as perhaps the most potent human rights issue in Chinese-American relations, one President Clinton cannot avoid as he prepares to visit Beijing. Clinton is under pressure in Congress to raise the issue. In March, as the House passed a human-rights resolution, Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, declared that Beijing's tight control over religion "is totally unacceptable and ought to be condemned."
Critics in the West point to the restrictions and repression as evidence of systematic persecution, while the Government's defenders here point, instead, to the relative freedom most Christians now enjoy. Paradoxically, the rising outcry abroad comes as Christianity in China, especially evangelical Protestantism, is growing explosively. The Rev. Don Argue, recent president of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States, says China may be experiencing "the single greatest Revival in the history of Christianity."
Much of that growth has occurred with official acquiescence, and though they remain a small minority in a giant country, millions of Chinese people like Zhang Linmei, a 32-year-old worshiper at St. Paul's, find the same comfort in religion that Christians do anywhere, without worrying much about politics. "I feel life is meaningless in society at large," Zhang said after services as she picked up her 5-year-old daughter, dressed in her finest, from Sunday school. "This is the only reliable place in my life," Zhang added.
"The situation for religion is in many ways the best it's been since 1949," said Richard Madsen, an expert on Chinese religion at the University of California at San Diego. Though the Government still controls their growth and closely monitors their activities, he said, the official churches enjoy more autonomy Wednesday than in the past.
Even the illegal churches -- unregistered Protestant churches and openly pro-Vatican Catholic groups -- function without serious trouble in many places, Dr. Madsen and others say. But those who refuse to pledge support to the Government and its apparatus of religious control, and those with unorthodox or ecstatic styles of worship, can face harsh repression. The situation is similar for other major religions here, including Buddhists and Muslims. Many believers now enjoy relative freedom, but Tibetan Buddhists who consider the Dalai Lama their leader face repression.
The History: After Repression, A Major Revival
In 1949, there were fewer than one million Protestants here. In 1979, three years after the end of the Cultural Revolution when Maoist mobs attacked churches and the homes of believers, only three Protestant churches were open in all of China. Estimates of the number of Christians in China's population of 1.2 billion range from about 15 million to 35 million, or some believe, many more. Chinese church officials say there are 12 million Protestants, and outside experts like Dr. Madsen say the actual number may be at least 20 million and rising. More than 12,000 official Protestant churches are open and, again by official estimates, Christians without access to churches or professional pastors meet in some 25,000 homes or other meeting points. These estimates ignore groups that the Government regards as criminal, and are believed to understate the total greatly.
The legions of Protestants include new converts like Xu Wenju, a 74-year-old widow in Beijing who first attended a large official church in 1995 at the urging of a neighbor and, she says, found spiritual sustenance. She was soon baptized and now says that she feels healthier, and that her family has become more harmonious.
It includes those born into Christian families like Dr. Wu, a 75-year-old retired physician in Beijing who read the Bible at age 6 and has wanted to spread the Gospel ever since. Chafing at the controls of the official church, he was jailed for over a year in the 1950's, he said, and he still prefers a house church, as the illegal gatherings are known. In 1992 the police came to his house and took his religious books and tapes, said Dr. Wu, who declined to give his fill name. But they left him his personal Bible, telling him, "You can believe but you cannot preach."
It includes a 30-year-old economics student in Beijing, Li, who said a friend had introduced the Gospel to her. She, too, attends a small house church, not for political reasons but because, she said, "I think there is more a feeling of love, and more opportunity for fellowship."
Officials say Catholics now number four million, while outside researchers say the true total may be closer to 10 million, with many secretly accepting the Pope as the true head of their church.
The peculiar hybrid state of Christianity here reflects the general obsession of the Communist Party with control: virtually any organization, whether political or social or religious, must gain party approval.
The party is an officially atheist organization that asserts that religion will eventually wither away. But in a policy spelled out in the early 1980's, the Government officially guarantees freedom of religion -- within prescribed boundaries including a required allegiance to the state, adherence to certain styles of worship and limits on church construction, evangelizing and the baptism of children, among other rules.
For those willing to accommodate, the 1990's seem a golden time. "From our perspective, now is the best period ever for implementing the policy of religious freedom," said Han Wenzao, who as president of the China Christian Council is the national leader of the official Protestant church and a prime link to the Communist Government. "The criterion should be, is the word of God being propagated or not? It is and it's good."
Han, who is 75 and has his office in the Jinling Union Seminary of Nanjing, says he became a devout Christian at a missionary college though he was never ordained. He helped create the official, "patriotic" Protestant church here during the period after the Communist takeover in 1949, when, he says, it was politically necessary to repudiate the "imperialist" sponsorship of foreign missionaries. The willing believers joined in a generic, nondenominational church. Han and other official leaders are bitterly denounced as sell-outs and "fake Christians" by some who reject the notion of saluting an atheistic state, and who often suffered terribly for refusing to cooperate.
Yuan Xiangchen, also known as Allen Yuan, 84, is one of the best-known leaders of the house church movement. He simply says: "The head of the church is not any agency or person. The head of the Church is Christ." "The official church is led by the Communists," he added. "That's why we worship at home."
Yuan, like many of the more defiant figures here, spent more than 20 years in jail for his beliefs, and in recent years has faced on-and-off curbs on his travel and work. At present, he is allowed to preach to up to several dozen followers in a dingy room, with a picture of the Rev. Billy Graham tacked on the wall, in an alleyway in the center of Beijing -- one of dozens such illegal gatherings that Beijing authorities suffer to exist, under a tight watch. In an interview last month, Yuan said he was forbidden to collect money from worshipers, and he added that controls were often more stringent on house churches in rural areas. More recently, security officials have warned him not to speak to reporters.
The Politics: Beijing Accommodates To a Rising Tide
While for those in prison the situation is all too stark, the religious picture in China Wednesday is often painted in shades of gray. The printing press outside Nanjing can produce millions of Bibles, for example, a clear boon to the church. But the press, the Nanjing Amity Printing Company, must reach agreement each year with the Government's Religious Affairs Bureau over how many Bibles it can actually print -- well below its capacity -- and the books can only be sold in churches, not in bookstores. Yet officials have also allowed the press to supply more than 1.2 million Bibles, through an American missionary group led by Ned Graham, a son of Billy Graham, to unapproved house churches.
In the 1980's, as religious activity began to recover here, outside evangelical groups had begun smuggling many Bibles into the country in suitcases. One of the major smugglers was Doug Sutphen. Then, Sutphen's East Gates Ministries, from the Seattle area, negotiated a deal in which it bought Nanjing Bibles to distribute outside official channels. He later handed over the organization to Ned Graham. "I see no need for smuggling any more," said Sutphen, who now dreams of some day arranging -- legally -- for a Christian television station in China. Graham has not responded to requests for an interview.
To illustrate another gray area: officially, evangelizing is forbidden in China. The definition has become blurred, though, as officials struggle to co-opt rapidly spreading Protestantism, especially in rural areas. During a surprise visit several weeks ago to the Saint James Protestant Church in Yichang, a city on the Yangtze River in Hubei, the pastor, the Rev. Zhu Zhigao, said that tens of thousands of people in the surrounding mountains had become Christian through person-to-person contact or under the influence of Hong Kong radio programs. So his church has brought in groups of rural Christian leaders, two groups of 40 each in the last year, for two-month training sessions, to serve as lay ministers in their villages. Among other things, he shows them imported videotapes about Christianity. And he distributes Bibles from the Nanjing press.
One of the Government's greatest fears is the breakaway emergence of an unorthodox sect that might seriously challenge public order -- at the extreme, something like the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-1800's, which began with a charismatic Christian sect leader, and eventually conquered half of China, with Nanjing as its capital.
From the Government's perspective, then, giving mainstream, if limited, theological training to leaders of a budding rural church is preferable to letting them forge their own paths, possibly into what the Government considers illegal cults. "I feel very free to spread the Gospel," said Zhu, who also serves on local Governmental bodies.
The Catholics have a seemingly clear litmus test: do they accept the leadership of the National Patriotic Catholic Movement and its selection of bishops, or do they, like Catholics in other countries, reserve those roles for the Pope? Some of the most pro-Vatican bishops and priests are persecuted or jailed. Yet there are many permutations.
Many priests in the official church say they remain privately loyal to the Vatican. The Vatican, for its part, says that while many newer priests and bishops are not legally ordained, they are true Catholics with the spiritual power to celebrate Mass and perform other sacred duties -- "valid but not licit" is the tortured phrase used by the Vatican to describe their status.The Vatican has even granted secret approval to some official church leaders, Dr. Madsen says.
For many years, to help meet the acute shortage of theology teachers, China has allowed groups of Vatican-ordained priests, from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere, to teach in official seminaries in China, according to church officials in Hong Kong. Groups of official Chinese priests have also studied in the Vatican-run seminary in Hong Kong.
The Repression: Jail Still Awaits The Defiant
And still the repression of some Christians continues, to different degrees among the country's far-flung regions. The number of people in jails or labor camps for their religious activity is a matter of dispute, but loose assertions abroad that thousands are in prison appear to be exaggerated.
Two major human rights groups, Amnesty International, based in London, and Human Rights Watch, in New York, both say -- while admitting to deep uncertainties -- that they find solid evidence only that scores of people are now in some form of long-term detention for their Christian activities: several dozen Catholic leaders, and a similar number of Protestants, are thought to be held.
Imprisonment is increasingly reserved for major organizers and leaders, while brief detentions and fines have been the more common penalty levied against illegal Christian groups, said Arlette Laduguie of Amnesty International. But she warned that information even on some recent large-scale crackdowns, like the arrests of hundreds of Roman Catholics last year in Jiangxi Province as part of a campaign against a powerful illegal movement, may not emerge for many months.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington and one of the sharpest American critics of China, said that on the basis of various field reports her group believes that at least 500 Christian leaders are serving sentences, while at least another 500 followers are detained at any given time, justifying her published statements that thousands are under arrest.
Conflict and arrests may have intensified in the mid-1990's as the Government, faced with an explosive spread of Christian groups and a shortage of reliable pastors, made a strong new push to require all religious groups to register with authorities. Those refusing have often been hounded.
While the registration drive is notorious among the house churches and their international supporters, it is actually good for Christianity, asserted Han, the official Protestant leader. "When you register, your legal status is protected," Han said. "That's something we wanted," he said -- to provide a defense against the lawless persecution seen in the past. The argument is rejected by those who just wish to be left alone. Han admitted that local officials sometimes improperly harass the church, and said he had on several occasions called on national authorities to rectify a local problem. "At the grass-roots or country level, there are still some people who cannot understand the central Government's policy of religious freedom," he said. He adds that local officials sometimes have trouble distinguishing cults, which are banned, from genuine Christian groups.
On that question, the definition of a cult, opinions differ. Han's sympathies do not extend to the likes of Xu Yongze, the Weepers leader recently sentenced to three years. Xu's followers are said to cry, sometimes for days, until they find a vision. Han said Xu's views were heresy, caused mental disorders and disturbances to neighbors, and were a violation of the law.
The very drive for conformity is part of the problem, rights advocates say. In its effort to define acceptable beliefs and limit how religion can be publicly expressed, China violates international standards of religious freedom as laid out in international charters and resolutions. "The right to believe what you want and the right to publicly manifest that belief when and where and with whom you want is what's at stake," said Mickey Siegal, a Human Rights Watch researcher in New York.
Another problem altogether is discrimination even against legal Christians, who usually cannot hold senior positions in Government or the vast state-run economy. This reflects a more fundamental trait of China: high office is still almost entirely reserved for members of the Communist Party -- who are not supposed to adopt Christianity or any other religion.
The Contrast: Evangelical Fire, Official Moderation
Recent Sunday services at St. Paul's Church in Nanjing exemplified the moderate, hybrid style of Protestantism that is promoted by Government agencies. In what could have been a scene at an American Presbyterian or Lutheran church, the members shared prayers and the Apostle's Creed, and they sang hymns with the robed choir. The recited verses from Acts and Psalms, and watched as six men from an ethnic minority group in Yunan, here on an exchange, sang a hymn in thanks for the hospitality.
They listened to a pleasant 20-minute sermon by the middle-aged Pastor Lin De'en, telling the story of a man who on his deathbed finally appreciated the Christianity of his wife and son, and concluding with an ode to the value of personal worship: it will help you become modest, honest, patient and love one another.
Chinese Christians sang hymns at St. Paul's Church in Nanjing. Despite continued Government repression of unregistered, illegal congregations, Protestantism, with millions of adherents, is gaining ground rapidly as China undergoes a strong religious revival.
Some of the house churches, in contrast, have the fiery spirit and orations of a revival meeting, the passion fed by a shared sense of persecution. Some also have links with foreign evangelists who slip into China, in unknown numbers, to exhort their brethren, sometimes with just the kinds of messages the Government most abhors.
At a recent house church service in a central Chinese city that, to protect the preacher, cannot be identified, two such missionaries, an Asian woman and a European man, showed up unannounced and were given the podium. "The early Christians were persecuted too," the Asian said. "We all must go out and spread the word!" "We must take the word of Jesus to Tibet and Xinjiang," she said, referring to the mainly Buddhist and Muslim border regions.
The European man took over. "They burn down a church every week, but the church is not made of wood," he said. "Let us go out and plant one million house churches," he said to the crowd of perhaps 50. "It will turn China upside down! God give us China or we die!"
The Chinese pastor took over, his air a bit more moderate. "It's true, we should all go out and start new house churches," he said. But he added, "If you go to the official church, then don't come here."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company