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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Inside China’s Underground Churches


With China’s government stepping up its campaign to bring the country’s underground Christian churches into line, The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing group of Protestant leaders who have begun a new unified effort to push back. Here reporter Brian Spegele offers an account of his experiences attending services at two so-called “house churches,” one in wealthy Beijing and another in an impoverished corner of the Chinese countryside:
It was over a lunch of stir-fried donkey and onions in the unremarkable city of Nanyang, in the poor central Chinese province of Henan, that Pastor Zhang Mingxuan first uttered a phrase that he would repeat countless times over the course of the two days I spent with him.
“I’m a child of God,” he said.
In what’s becoming the greatest test of constraints on religion since the government crushed the spiritual discipline of Falun Gong in 1999, many Christians across China – whom experts say number in the many tens of millions – are offering increasingly coordinated resistance to government persecution. For the first time, some have begun calling for legal recognition of underground churches. The believers cross-cut Chinese society, from poor farmers in places like Henan to Beijing’s nouveau riche.
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China's Banned Churches Defy Regime

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Millions of Chinese Protestants attend illegal underground churches, outside of Communist control. Two pastors are among those leading an intensifying charge against China's state-run religious system. WSJ's Angela Yeoh reports.
The amiable Mr. Zhang had a propensity for spitting on the lapel of his dark gray suit coat as he preached in a coarse Henan accent about the need for greater religious openness. He founded in 2005 the Chinese House Church Alliance, an organization that brings together dozens of underground church pastors from across China. Unlike in Beijing and other large cities, where the embrace of Christianity is stylish for young and upwardly mobile Chinese, many of the Christians served by Mr. Zhang’s House Church Alliance are those left behind by the country’s newfound economic power.
At at courtyard home an hour’s drive outside of Nanyang, long after the city’s half-constructed apartment blocks had given way to wheat fields, one of Mr. Zhang’s House Church Alliance pastors was set to deliver a sermon. His audience consisted of 30 or so believers, most of them elderly women, who sat on stools or crouched on the cement-floored living room, lit by a single florescent bulb and adorned with little to suggest it was serving as a secret church. A sickly woman rested in the next room. A blind man stood listening in the back.
The pastor entered the courtyard home at a half-jog, cradling a box of Christian books. Like Mr. Zhang, he said he’d been detained dozens of times by police. His sermon that day, on the topic of church unity, was peppered throughout with the word tongxin, “a single heart.” Unity, he told the assembled group, “is the only way we can move forward.”
The message was the same at another service at the Beijing Zion church, about 500 miles northeast of Nanyang, though the scene was strikingly different. Women decked out in floral summertime dresses clicked away on iPhones as they waited for Pastor Jin Mingri to begin. At least one Mercedes, Audi or BMW is parked most Sundays outside the office building where Zion is housed.
While Zion’s flock may be relatively wealthy, the church’s environs were simple: rows of folding chairs, fluorescent track lighting, a cross and pulpit at the front. Before the service began, a young man approached me and asked in flawless English what I was doing there. I turned the question around. He said he was a student at Renmin University, one of China’s top universities. Like many of China’s young and educated, who face immense social pressure to succeed, he said he was drawn to Christianity for its communalism, as well as its global appeal and historical roots, which includes a presence in China since at least the seventh century.

Sim Chi Yin for the Wall Street Journal
Pastor Jin Mingri of the Zion Church in Beijing, says a prayer during service on July 17, 2010.
Nearby, mothers were selling coffee to raise money for a Sunday school. It was his first time attending church, the university student said, and he seemed unaware of the growing battle between Christians and the government. His eyes widened as he was told the church’s pastor, Mr. Jin, had been warned by state security agents to back off calls for legal recognition of unsanctioned churches. What was the government was scared of, he asked.
The government wouldn’t likely oppose much of what Mr. Jin preaches. He talks a lot about morals and family. Occasionally, however, he’ll delve into politics, at times using biblical allegories to explain repression of Christians in China today.
There are no purely religious questions in China, Mr. Jin told me in one of our conversations, because faith and politics remain deeply intertwined.
During the sermon, Mr. Jin bemoaned the lack of Christians in Chinese politics today. He urged the congregation of mostly young people to make their descendents interested in politics.
“I know that the current political climate is difficult for us Christians right now,” he told them. “But I believe that God will be with you. If you think you have no hope for yourselves, think of your sons and your daughters.”