In the run-up to the Olympic games, the authorities announced they would distribute 10,000 Bibles around the Olympic village for the Christian guests. The biggest Bible printing press in the world is in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing. Anyone bringing Bibles into the country is likely to encounter problems at customs however. In China, the relationship between the State and the Christian Church remains tense. There are two state-sanctioned Christian churches. However, many of the estimated 60 to 100 million Christians belong to so-called house churches, which are often referred to collectively as the “underground” church.
A Christian wedding in a state-sanctioned church in Beijing
The room is filled with the sound of music. It sounds like a perfectly normal cultural event until one listens to the lyrics. A Christian service is beginning at a family church in Beijing. The prayers are accompanied by electric guitar and drums.
The church was founded about two years ago with the help of South Korean missionaries. It now has 500 members, who meet every Sunday for a service in a rented conference room in the north of the Chinese capital:
One believer leads the others in prayer -- they finish with “amen”. Then they discuss selected excerpts from the Bible. A young woman called Cui climbs onto the podium and talks about her recently experiences volunteering in the earthquake zone.
She grew up in atheist China. Christianity has transformed her, she says: “When God touches you, it changes your inner self in a magic way. Your former knowledge and experiences remain but your heart changes.”
Restrictive state-sanctioned religion
Although the right to religious freedom is firmly embedded in the Chinese constitution, in practice only state-controlled forms of religious expression are allowed. There are two state-sanctioned Christian churches. The Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council form the official Protestant Church. There is also the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is not recognised by Rome. The state-sanctioned Churches’ priests and bishops are nominated and paid by the state.
For this reason, many Chinese Christians feel that their religious freedom is restricted. Many Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican or Protestants who want to practise their religion more freely choose to join so-called house or family churches. These are in theory illegal but usually tolerated. However, the persecution of underground priests and believers continues.
In the run-up to the Olympic Games this year, 21 house pastors were sent to labour camps.
Defending freedom of belief
Zhang Kai is a member of the “Zion” family church and a lawyer who represents believers, whose religious freedom rights have been violated:
“The heart of religious freedom lies in the separation of the Church and the State,” he explains. “A secular government should not venture into the territory of religion. It also has no right to judge which religion is good or bad. Otherwise there is a violation of religious freedom and of the constitution, as well as the secular principle.”
His most prominent case brought him to the province of Zhejiang, where the local police had torn down the chapel of an underground church but in Beijing he feels that the authorities are less brutal.
“In June, the Beijing Police Bureau in Beijing banned an event. They also wanted us to stop our services. But the ban was unjustified and counter-constitutional. Since then the restrictions have been relaxed. Generally, the atmosphere is quite free at our church events.“
All believers are required by the police to register their personal details when they join a church. But this does not seem to be stopping people from joining house churches such as the Zion Family Church. Independent sources estimate the number of Christians in China to lie between 60 and a hundred million. The numbers are reportedly rising daily.