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Christians in China

There are an estimated 100 million Christians, more than the total membership of the Communist Party. Christianity has a long history in China. Nestorian Christians were in China by the middle of the seventh century. Franciscans reached Peking before the end of the thirteenth century, and one of their bishops was executed there in 1362. But these efforts came to nothing.

The real start of Catholic work in China came toward the close of the sixteenth century, when, after Xavier's heartbroken death off the closed coast of South China, another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, reached Canton. Ricci pressed north to Peking, where, having made a reputation for himself as a scholar, he was given a place at the court. He left the Catholic work in a position of great promise when he died.

Encouraged by the reports of Jesuit success, the Franciscans and Dominicans soon entered the country. And it is a strange commentary on the jealousies that often arise within the Christian communion and thus hinder the work that, from that day to this, the various Catholic orders working in China have so sought to thwart one another that they have proved their own worst enemies. Early in the eighteenth century the Dominicans managed to get the Jesuits mixed up in a dispute with the Pope as to the translation of certain terms and the meaning of certain rites, and when the pontiff decided in a manner adverse to a previous decision by the Chinese emperor, that ruler, alarmed at the power of this unseen foreigner in far-off Italy, suppressed all Catholic missions.

Although by far the greater part of the Catholic work was wiped out, some priests managed to stay within the country, and converts remained when churches had been destroyed. The Catholic work revived rapidly after the country had been opened, following the wars with the English and French in the nineteenth century. The French Jesuits have again gathered large congregations, and there are considerable numbers under the training of Spanish and German fathers. By the early 20th Century there were about two thousand five hundred priests, of whom almost a half are Chinese, and two million communicants.

The first Protestant missionary landed in Canton in 1807. His name was Robert Morrison, and he came as a representative of the London Missionary Society. Because of English hostility, he was forced to make his voyage in an American vessel. Morrison found it impossible to preach, so gave himself to mastering the language and translating the Scriptures. It took him seven years to win his first convert, and when he died, in 1834, there had been just ten Chinese baptized by all the Protestant workers in the country.

During generations the growth of the Protestant missions was very slow. Succeeding treaties gave missionaries, with other foreigners, the right to reside in certain cities, and these were gradually pushed inland. But there were as degrading foreign forces in these cities as there were uplifting. As late as 1877 there were only thirteen thousand Protestant converts in all China.

The most romantic phase of Protestant work during this period was the formation of the China Inland Mission by Hudson Taylor. About the time of the American Civil War Mr. Taylor challenged believers in an evangelical faith to leave the shelter of the foreign settlements and push into the interior, trusting in the Lord for protection, food, and the opportunity to preach. Hundreds of devoted Christians, from many countries and many communions, accepted that challenge, and the China Inland Mission has, to this day, the largest mission force in the land.

Slowly the exasperation of the Chinese at the despoliation of their country by the foreign powers had been mounting. In the year 1900 this reached a crisis when a general uprising in North China, led by the Society of Righteous Fists (mistranslated, "Boxers"), tried to exterminate all men from abroad, and make it possible for China to go back to her old modes of living. This uprising was not primarily aimed against Christianity, but because Christianity was the foreigners' religion it suffered horribly. One hundred and thirty-five Protestant missionaries, fifty-eight children in missionaries' families, thirty-five Roman Catholic priests and nine sisters were martyred. Even worse was the fate that befell the Chinese Christians who were thought to have betrayed their country in accepting foreign religion. Although a chance to recant and live was offered many, sixteen thousand died, frequently after fearful torture.

Heavy punishment was laid upon China for the terrible deeds of the Boxer uprising, but in centuries to come the historian may conclude that it was worth all the suffering because of the immediate and complete transformation that it produced. Overnight the Chinese began to clamor for the Western instruction and methods of industry they had previously despised. Mission schools were crowded; the churches, with the sincerity of previous converts proved by their blood, multiplied at an amazing rate.

The overthrow of the Manchus, that came in 1911, added fresh impetus to the movement, and the latest statistics (those for 1919) showed that there were 344,974 communicants and 617,194 more under instruction, many of them baptized, in the Protestant churches. In addition to these, the Young Men's Christian Association had made a great appeal to the Chinese, and although it was then only about twenty-five years old, reported a membership of 70,000 in its various branches. Almost every established mission in China was embarrassed by the number of those who seek membership, for it is the general policy not to admit those who cannot be properly trained.

Coercive political campaigns were orchestrated by Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950's. In the 1950s foreign missionaries were expelled, often after being accused of spying, and Chinese Christians, who made up only a very small proportion of the population, were the objects of suspicion because of their foreign contacts. Chinese Christian organizations were established, one for Protestants and one for Roman Catholics, which stressed that their members were loyal to the state and party. Seminaries were established to train "patriotic" Chinese clergy, and the Chinese Catholic Church rejected the authority of the Vatican, ordaining its own priests and installing its own bishops. Chinese Christian leaders who began their Christian vocation before the 1949 Communist takeover linked the older Chinese Christians, often marked by the missionary presence, with the new Christian generation, which became apparent around the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s.

Next are the active and younger leaders of the house church network. This younger generation was diverse in their leadership and theological leanings, but they continueed the martyr-like spirit of their elders. The post-1970 Chinese Christians achieved a dramatic resurgence of Chinese Christianity after a series of attempts to “assassinate” Christianity in China. The house church network conducted underground training schools and programs which produced the next generation of leaders, evangelists, church planters and missionaries. Several house church networks exhibited Pentecostal or charismatic beliefs and worship.

Bishop Ding Guangxun was a leader in efforts to humiliate in the public media all Protestant Christians who were unwilling to be associated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Three Self churches and their leaders were subjected to harsh treatment by the state, just as the house churches were, although perhaps less in intensity, and also with the state sanction after the Cultural Revolution. The Christian commitment of leaders like Bishop Ding was questioned by many, in the context of the state’s demand for priority loyalty. But it was also true that the genuineness of Christian faith among many TSPM churches cannot be denied.

The Government officially permits only those churches affiliated with either the Catholic Patriotic Association or the (Protestant) Three-Self Patriotic Movement/Chinese Christian Council to operate legally. The state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which leads the registered Protestant church in China, continues to impose a Party-defined theology, called "theological construction," on registered seminaries that is intended to "weaken those aspects within Christian faith that do not conform with the socialist society."

The Constitution of the People's Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship, and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups to prevent the rise of competing possible sources of authority outside of the control of the Government.

According to the 2010 Blue Book of Religions, compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' (CASS) Institute of World Religions, Christians number nearly 23 million, accounting for 1.8 percent of the population. The Blue Book -- the first official figures compiled on the country's religions -- stated that 70 percent of Christians are female and 67 percent have been baptized. Christians between the ages of 35 and 64 account for more than 60 percent of the total number and a quarter are 65 or older. According to official media, the CASS study found that 70 percent of Protestants worship in registered churches and 30 percent worship in unregistered churches, residences of friends, or their own homes.

According to June 2010 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), statistics, the official Protestant population is 16 million. Government officials stated there are more than 50,000 Protestant churches registered under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-approved Protestant patriotic association, and 18 TSPM theological schools. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2007 that 50 million to 70 million Christians practice in unregistered religious gatherings, also known as "house churches." A Chinese scholar estimated that the number of Protestants, including those in both registered and unregistered churches, was nearly 90 million.

According to SARA, more than 5.3 million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong estimated in 2009 that there were 12 million Catholics in the country. Official sources reported that the CPA has more than 70 bishops, nearly 3,000 priests and nuns, 6,000 churches and meeting places, and 12 seminaries. Of the 97 dioceses in the country, 40 reportedly did not have an officiating bishop in 2007, and in 2009 there were an estimated 30 bishops over 80 years of age.

Local governments have legalized certain religions and practices in addition to the five nationally recognized religions. Examples include Orthodox Christianity in some provinces, including Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces.

Certain religious and spiritual groups are banned by law. Some individuals belonging to or supporting banned groups have been imprisoned or sentenced to Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) on charges such as "distributing evil cult materials" or "using a heretical organization to subvert the law." The criminal law defines banned groups as "evil cults." A 1999 judicial explanation stated that this term "refers to those illegal groups that have been found using religions, qigong or other things as a camouflage, deifying their leading members, recruiting and controlling their members, and deceiving people by molding and spreading superstitious ideas, and endangering the society." There are no public criteria for determining, or procedures for challenging, such a designation.

The government maintained its bans on the Guan Yin (also known as Guanyin Famin or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy), Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline), and Falun Gong. The government also considered several Protestant Christian groups to be "evil cults," including the "Shouters," Eastern Lightning, the Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church, Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (or San Ban Pu Ren), Association of Disciples, Lord God Sect, Established King Church, Unification Church, Family of Love, and the South China Church.

Several religious leaders reported that their applications for registration were rejected because they were not affiliated with a patriotic religious association. Some cited the politicization of religion as a reason for their reluctance to affiliate, including reconciling Christianity with socialism. Leaders of unregistered churches expressed concern that they would have to deny certain theological beliefs because of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC) prohibition on denominations. They also cited reluctance to accept restrictions on evangelism and religious sacraments.

Registered religious organizations were allowed to compile and print religious materials for internal use. In order to distribute religious materials publicly, an organization must follow national printing regulations, which restrict the publication and distribution of literature with religious content. The government limited distribution of Bibles to TSPM/CCC entities such as churches and seminaries. Individuals could not order Bibles directly from publishing houses. There were approximately 600 Christian titles legally in circulation. According to a foreign Christian source, in the last 10 years, an estimated 200 Christian bookstores had opened in the country and nine domestic Christian publishers.

The nomination and assignment of bishops has been a key sticking point in Vatican-Chinese relations for decades; the Catholic Church has insisted that bishops be appointed by the pope and the Chinese government has maintained that would amount to foreign interference in China's internal affairs.

Catholic communities that refused to register with the government and refused to follow government-appointed bishops commonly are referred to as the underground church. Many communities, though, had bishops who were elected locally but who pledged their unity with and fidelity to the pope, which in effect meant they were recognized by both the government and the Vatican.

China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops on 22 September 2018. the provisional agreement would outline precise procedures for ensuring Catholic bishops are elected by the Catholic community in China and approved by the pope before their ordinations and installations. The pope will have the final word on the appointment of bishops in China.

For the first time in decades, all of the Catholic bishops in China are in full communion with the pope, the Vatican announced. Pope Francis lifted the excommunications or irregular status of seven bishops who had been ordained with government approval, but not the Vatican's consent. In recent years, most bishops chosen by the government-related Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association had sought and received Vatican recognition before their ordinations.

Although the agreement is pastoral, not political, it was seen as a step in the long efforts to re-establish full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. The two had not had formal diplomatic ties since shortly after China's 1949 communist revolution.

The 22 October 2020 renewal of a provisional bishop agreement between China and the Vatican carried special importance of the Holy See's goodwill to move forward relations with China, despite that the Vatican faces mounting pressure to abolish the deal. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the Pope would lose his "moral authority" if he continued the deal, ahead of the former's visit to Italy and the Vatican in September. But when he arrived in the Vatican, he was met with a cold shoulder from the Pope.

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Page last modified: 01-08-2021 14:08:04 ZULU