Underground, overground

Despite harassment by police, China’s house-church movement is growing

From The Economist

For the past couple of years, China’s tens of millions of Christians, most of whom are Protestants, have been watching events in the coastal province of Zhejiang with anxiety. The authorities there have been waging a relentless campaign to remove the large crosses that adorn the roofs of many churches; hundreds have been taken down, to the horror of their congregations. In January this took a turn for the worse with the arrest of Gu Yuese, the outspoken pastor of the country’s largest church, a colossal edifice in the provincial capital, Hangzhou, that seats 5,000 people—about 50% more than St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Many feared that the detention of Mr Gu, who had been criticising the removal of crosses, might signal the start of a fiercer, nationwide, crackdown.

To their relief, Mr Gu was released a few days ago. It was also a surprise. Only in February the pastor of another state-approved church in Zhejiang had been jailed for 14 years and his wife for 12 years after they protested against the removal of crosses. Mr Gu may owe his freedom to his church’s high profile in such a large and important city, rather than to any change of heart by Zhejiang’s authorities. Christians in the province, which has a high concentration of them, are not yet rejoicing.  

But there is little sign that Zhejiang’s clampdown on the public flaunting of Christian faith, of which the crosses are seen as an example, is encouraging officials elsewhere to adopt a similar approach. Indeed in some areas, including Beijing, “house churches”, as those without official approval are often called (even though they sometimes meet in offices), have been operating ever more openly.

That is not to say that most Chinese Christians enjoy religious freedom. Far from it. Police in some areas continue to harass and detain members of house churches. But in many places, house churches are flourishing, and often make little if any effort to hide their activities from the government. Officials appear to turn a blind eye. President Xi Jinping is waging a fierce campaign against dissent, rounding up hundreds of civil-rights activists and tightening controls on the media. He appears less keen, however, to take on the country’s fast-growing Christian community, as long as its members do not openly defy the Communist Party.

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