Officially, the Chinese Government recognises five religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, and each has a state-sponsored religious body.
Protestants are supposed to worship under the auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement — standing, ironically, for self-governing, self-teaching and self-supporting.
However, a large proportion of Protestant Christians worship in unofficial or illegal congregations which gather covertly throughout the country outside government control.
They constitute the House-Church Movement or Underground Church and argue that the Government should not dictate where and how they should worship. For many years this newspaper has carried reports of the persecution meted out to members of these churches.
It is hard to know how many people actually worship in these underground churches. By their very nature, information about these groups is sketchy, and even informed estimates vary widely.
The Chinese Government is keen to talk the numbers down, while some missionary groups and support agencies are eager to talk them up. But by any measure the numbers are staggering.
A recent report in The Times newspaper suggested that officials privately estimate that Chinese Christians number 130 million — far outstripping the 74 million members of the Communist Party.
The official Three-Self Church claims about 21 million adherents and the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association about 5 million. That means more than 100 million Christians could be worshipping independently.
These believers have few resources like Bibles, Christian books and Bible teaching materials. Even their leaders have little in the way of theological training and the people are often poorly taught.
In China, only registered churches are allowed to sell Bibles and their sale and distribution is strictly controlled. Many house-church Christians do not have a copy of the Bible.
On top of this, persecution of these churches and their leaders continues. One group — China Aid Association, founded by a former house-group pastor to draw international attention to China’s human rights violations against Christians — claims that 2008 was a particularly difficult year, despite it being the year of the Beijing Olympics.
China Aid report that known incidents of persecution in the capital rose from 104 in 2007 to 539 in 2008. Overall in China, the report continues, a total of 2,027 people were persecuted because of their Christian faith, up 157% on 2007.
The group believe that the actual number of cases is much higher. Persecution, as defined by the report, includes threats, inordinate fines, property confiscation, interrogation, arrest, and other abuses.
Of course, these are not just statistics; each case represents a personal crisis for the individuals and families involved. This month Barnabas Fund reported that on 16 January more than a dozen officers from the Chinese Government’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) escorted Pastor ‘Bike’ Zhang Mingxuan from the home of another pastor in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province. He and his family have been forbidden by the authorities to stay in the city.
Pastor ‘Bike’ had gone to the home of Pastor Hua Huiqi to visit Hua’s father, who is dying. Hua’s mother, Shuang Shuying, is 79 and currently in prison and the authorities refuse to let her see her husband. Pastor ‘Bike’ was praying for the sick man when the PSB officials broke into the house.
This is only the most recent hostile act against this faithful pastor — last October PSB officials attacked his family, beating up his son Zhang Jian and forcing his wife out of their flat.
Better times ahead?
However, there are signs that the Government’s policy towards the unregistered churches may be softening. Recently, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and another government-recognised organisation, the China Christian Council, announced their willingness to provide house-churches with Bibles.
Last autumn, leaders from these groups met with Hong Kong church leaders and said they want to support house-churches in mainland China and work together with them to build the Chinese Protestant Church.
In particular, the leaders said they hope to work together with house-church leaders to resolve problems like the shortage of pastors in China and the theological challenges facing the Chinese church.
In another development, two meetings were called last year by the State Council Development Research Centre, an official party think-tank. The first involved about a dozen academics and lawyers, many known to be members of the unofficial church. The second brought together six house-church leaders.
According to The Times report, one church leader, Pastor Ezra Jin, who started the Zion Church about two years ago, said he felt the invitation had been inevitable. ‘The Government has a more open attitude towards religion, so when they asked me to come I didn’t need them to explain why’, he said.
Time for reconciliation?
Church leaders said that the Government — including the police, who have raided and crushed underground churches for years — had realised that the time for confrontation had passed.
Pastor Jin told The Times: ‘The Government is anxious to work out the way to go forward. They have understood that the Protestant Church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony’.
In a report on these meetings, another house-church pastor wrote that one of the main topics was the difficulty of keeping the unofficial church under the Government’s heel. Pastors say that raids, fines and even punishments such as re-education through labour are no longer effective; if one church is broken up new ones are started.
Of course, all this could simply be a change of tactics by Chinese officials. Reports ahead of the Beijing Olympics warned that the Government was using more subtle methods to persecute Christians, such as arresting only important leaders instead of whole congregations.
Needs and numbers
However, if these meetings do presage a shifting of Government thinking, and if many thousands of Chinese underground congregations begin to make their way above ground, their needs and numbers will affect churches all around the world.
We ought to be positive. It is amazing to hear of hundreds of sovereign grace sermons being downloaded in China every month from the internet. It is important to remember too that God has his chosen people amongst every nation, kindred, tongue and people (Revelation 14:6) and by his grace, and for his glory, he is calling them out of the world and into the faith of Christ by the everlasting gospel.
Whatever the motives behind these moves by the Chinese Government, it is important that we bring the believers of China before the Lord in prayer.
We should pray especially that increased official acceptance will not lead to a decline in zeal, doctrine or effectiveness among our persecuted brethren in China, as has so often happened in the history of the wider church.