BEIJING // Shi Yu Gui walks two hours to get to her local church in Pu Cheng, a small town in Shaanxi province, central China. Every Sunday she gets there an hour or so early to socialise with other women and help prepare for the service. The women enjoy a relaxing moment in the sun on the steps of the church listening to the choir practice. "I like to get here early and enjoy the atmosphere before the service," the 75-year-old said. Slowly the church filled up. The older women crowded the front rows, while the younger generation stayed in back with the children. The church, built by Swedish missionaries in the 19th century was shut down and used as government offices when the Communists came to power. It counted only a few hundred members when it reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1980, but had to be rebuilt in 1999 to accommodate the growing number of Christians in the town. It can now hold 1,500. A new church for the district is planned for more than 3,000 people.
The church is affiliated with the official Protestant Three Self Movement, and has 30,000 members (out of a total population of 800,000). In the county, 300,000 are members of the Three Self Movement. On top of those, there exist a multitude of house churches in the county, which have not registered with the state and exist in a grey legal zone. They are estimated to have three times as many members as the official church. Nationwide, churches have swollen with new communicants. The phenomenon started in rural China and is now spreading to the cities and the rising middle class. In 1980, not even one per cent of the attendees were young, now more than 30 per cent are young men and women with high incomes and good educations. "It is impossible to know the extent of the number of new Christians in China, especially for the house churches," said Gerold Heinke, a German pastor and teacher at the Three Self Movement seminary in Beijing. "The official numbers only count official church numbers and even those are off. I have heard some associations say there are 10,000 new members a day globally in China. This could well be possible." In 2004, there were 80 students in the Three Self Movement seminary in Beijing. There are 160 today and the seminar is expanding to welcome more than 250 future pastors. The website of the official state administration of religious affairs quotes 16 million Protestants and seven million Catholics across the country, but these numbers do not take into consideration the underground churches. It is estimated that with the underground churches, seven per cent of the Chinese population practices some form of Christian faith. There are multiple reasons for the surge in Christianity that started shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution and accelerated throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The main one is the loss of interest in communism. "Maoism can no longer explain what is happening in society. People are looking for support elsewhere for their daily challenges and turn to the Christian community to look for help and answers," Mr Heinke said. Although Shi Yi Gui was always a Christian, she said she seriously started going to church after she fell ill and received no help from the government. "I turned to God for answers," she said. "The community has always been very present. They help pay for my medication; they visit me if I am too sick to attend church. I feel a real presence." In turn, she pays daily visits to friends too sick to leave their homes and prays with or reads the Bible to them. She tries to attend all the church's weekly activities: prayer group on Wednesday and singing and choir practice on Saturday. "Chinese society is family centred; families have a moral responsibility towards each other. But recently, a lot of young have immigrated to the cities and the structure of the family has broken down," Mr Heinke said. "The churches have become a kind of substitute for the family." The government has gradually eased controls and become more open to religious views. If Mao was totally opposed to religion and banned all practice during the Cultural Revolution, his successors have been more lenient and consider religion as something they just have to put up with. "When I converted openly [in 1984], people in my village did not understand. We were only five or six in my whole village and everyone made fun of us. Mao taught the people that God does not exist," Shi Yu Gui said. "Now people's attitude is really changing. I feel free to tell others I am a Christian." During the Cultural Revolution she had to hide her religious practice. Only a few friends, most of them Christians also, knew of her beliefs. Her mother would hold secret house services and pretend to read poems with her friends. The local pastor was ridiculed and sent to re-education camp. "Converting used to be a very hard decision to make. Christians were often pushed away by the family and lost their rights," Mr Heinke said. Times have changed. It is 11.30am. The congregation in Pu Cheng church has begun praying. The church is full; a few latecomers take their places in the back rows. Old women bow their heads and recite their prayers. Then the choir enters on stage dressed in blue and white, along with a brass band. The congregation stands and sings. The local government fully supports the Pu Cheng church. It paid 600,000 yuan (Dh323,000) to help build it and has helped the pastor negotiate a cheap price in prime real estate area for a new one planned in two years. Though the state administration of foreign affairs does state that religious messages are to be "compatible with socialism", it seems the state rarely interferes with what goes on in the churches. "If you accept the rules there are a lot of things possible within the official church. As long as you stay out of politics you are pretty much free," Mr Heinke said. The local pastor, Jiang En Hui (named after a Swedish missionary who cured his mother in the 1950s), said: "In my view, there is a misunderstanding in the West about religion in China. As a pastor I can preach whatever I want. The government does not influence the way we pray. Christians are enjoying more freedom than they ever had and I have never had any problems as long as I follow the law." He too comes from a Christian family and until 1981 had to practice behind closed doors. As soon as Deng Xiao Ping allowed churches to reopen he trained to become a pastor and now preaches in 17 towns in the county. But for many Christians in China the sky is more clouded. The majority worship outside of government control. The Catholic Church - the one recognised by the Vatican - is an underground church and regularly in tension with officials. And the existence of the house churches, although tolerated for the most part, depends on the good will of the local government. In some cases the local government benefits from investments new members bring to the province; in other cases, churches have to pay bribes to remain open. Shi Yu Gui did consider joining a local house church closer to her home than the official church. But, at the time, she found "they were not well organised. They had too few members and had little funding." In most cases this is no longer true. House churches receive funding from new members, most of whom are now urban, educated and earning good incomes. Some are also linked to overseas associations in the United States that also help them financially. "Within the next 20 years, I am sure the numbers of Christians will reach a critical weight and then they will change the structure of Chinese society," Mr Heinke said. * The National