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The Costs of Faith in China

By John Martin

During a 10-day visit to mainland China, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the heart of Christian witness is “not in aggressive shouting at people,” but in being “ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within you, but with gentleness and grace.”

On Trinity Sunday he told worshipers at Muen Church, Shanghai, that the Greek word martyroi refers to both a witness and a martyr. In many parts of the world today, to be a witness to Jesus Christ very often means dying for the faith, as with the early Christians.

Archbishop Justin Welby was keen to address how Christians contribute to public discourse. The archbishop said that 1 Peter 3 is clear that “the heart of witness lay not in aggressive shouting at people or any other form of manipulation or disruption, but in lives that were lived so clearly that people would ask why the Christian lived in such a way.”

Archbishop Welby’s visit (May 27 to June 5) was at the joint invitation of the China State Administration for Religious Affairs and the China Christian Council/National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Association of the Protestant Churches in China.

Christians in China have lived with persecution since Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). During that decade many churches were closed, Bibles burned, and church leaders imprisoned. Intellectuals, including theological teachers, were condemned to do manual labour in the fields as “reorientation.” But Christianity emerged from the decade stronger and with much increased numbers.

Now, however, China watchers are expressing concern at what appears to be heigthened tension between Christians and Chinese authorities. Since early last year church demolitions were reported in several towns in Zhejiang province, in Shanghai’s hinterland. Crosses deemed too obtrusive were forcibly removed.

In April, a Roman Catholic church in a rural county was demolished and the cross on a Protestant church destroyed. A dozen other churches received ultimatums to pull down buildings or crosses in a campaign against “illegal structures.”

Most spectacular of all was demolition on April 28 of a huge, recently completed Roman Catholic church in Sanjiang, 350km south of Shanghai. The budget for the building was close to $5 million. It had a 60-meter tower and a 30-meter transept, and resembled a European gothic cathedral. An annex served as a home for the elderly. In the lead-up to the demolition 40 church leaders were detailed by authorities but later released.

The reasons for this turbulence remain unclear. Most of the church communities threatened in this way are not affiliated with officially authorised religious bodies. Local Christians claim orders for the demolitions are coming “straight from the top” in Beijing. Other observers claim it is the result of planning disputes or of rivalry between local and national authorities.

Official estimates place the number of Christians at 24 million Protestants and 6 million Catholics. There are tens of millions of “clandestine Christians.”

Religious trends in China are notoriously complex. There is a favourite saying among expert China watchers: “Everything you hear about the church in China will probably be true.”

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