A new article from the Associated Press details the struggles which Christians in China are facing at the hands of the Chinese state.
The article focuses principally on the Henan province, but the problems are endemic to the rest of China as well. Churches are raided and destroyed, individual Christians are pressured into ceasing public worship, and Christian leaders are arrested. The state also coerces employers and businesses to fire Christian workers and to stop leasing apartments and facilities to them.
Christianity in China has a long and complicated history. The faith came to China by the 7th century, but believers remained small in number. In the 16th through 20th centuries, Western missionaries attempted to evangelize the country, meeting with mixed success. The Communist Party, which gained power in China after WWII, actively discouraged religious belief and sought to suppress the Church. However, the number of believers continued to grow such that the government eventually relaxed its restrictions following Mao’s death in 1976. This surface tolerance of the faith, however, comes at a cost.
The constitution of China ostensibly protects the belief and practice of “normal” religion, which is taken to mean “government sanctioned” religious institutions. Fall outside of these institutions and persecution is highest, although even believers belonging to the governmental organizations face persecution.
The three main governmental Christian organizations in China are the China Christian Council, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The first two deal with Protestant Christians and are together commonly called the “Two Organizations;” the third - obviously - deals with Chinese Catholics. However, the Catholic Association is not formally allied with the Vatican and therefore professes the prerogative to appoint its own bishops without oversight from Rome. The Vatican has, in practice, normally recognized these bishops (although not always), but there is no formal, overarching agreement in place which recognizes the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association as being in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Both the Chinese Protestant and Catholic organizations stress obedience to the government and seek to minimize foreign interference in religious life within China. In fact, the three “selfs” of the Protestant organization refer to self-government, self-support, and self-propagation; i.e. “self” referring to the Chinese doing these things, rather than foreigners. For these reasons, Christians who belong to organizations outside the state-sponsored ones find themselves more heavily persecuted. Most times these Christians worship in house churches, which can actually be quite large, with worship occurring in dedicated facilities.
The Chinese government, under President Xi Jinping, has increased its persecution of Christians, ordering the removal of crosses and statues, destroying house churches, and insisting on overt displays of patriotism, even in the state-sponsored organizations (this ought to be a warning to American Christians as well that we should value our unity in Christ over nationalism). The persecution is part of a purge of “Western influences” in the country.
The AP article details a few of these abuses by the Chinese authorities. However, let me add a personal note to this story.
In July 2013 I spent a week in China, both in Beijing and Shanghai. This followed a long period of remotely working with Chinese engineers based in these cities.
In Shanghai, I went to dinner with our Chinese hosts at a restaurant with side rooms with closed doors. We all sat around a large “lazy Susan” type of table, with a rotating glass tray in the center on which the various dishes of the meal were placed. During the dinner, the people opened up quite a bit. One man, in particular, talked about Jesus and said that he thought that what was wrong with China is the unbridled drive for wealth. As China transitioned from Maoism to a form of capitalism under one party rule, people were making money, the country was investing in infrastructure, and things were generally going well economically. However, the opinion in the room was that the Chinese people had lost something of their soul in the quest to gain wealth. The man at dinner said that people needed Jesus instead of money to fill this void in their lives.
It is the drive to fill this void which is causing explosive growth in the Chinese Church: as St. Augustine confessed to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You” (Augustine, Confessions, book 1 chapter 1). China currently has at least 67 million Christians and is expected to have the “world’s largest population of Christians by 2030.” This, despite the opposition of the Communist Party in China. Indeed, as the second century Christian apologist Tertullian noted: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apology, chapter 50).
What can we do to help our Christian brethren in China? For one, pray for them. We may be separated by geography, culture, and language - yet, we are united together in Christ, now and forever. Second, seek out and support organizations which are trying to strengthen the Church and her believers in China. Third, contact your elected representatives and let them know that the issue of China’s persecution of Christians is important to you.