RIPPING crosses from church steeples may not seem like the best way to earn a promotion. But in Xi Jinpings in China, that might do the trick. In 2014, Xia Baolong, Communist Party leader of Zhejiang, a coastal province, oversaw a campaign to remove more than 1,500 crosses from places of worship in the province. The Bibles were confiscated; the pastors were locked up. It certainly did not hurt Mr. Xias’ career. A longtime ally of the president, he was first promoted to a plum job in Beijing and then, in February, to a new assignment as head of the office in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs.
As for the Christians of China, their number continues to grow. The government estimates that about 200 million of the 1.4 billion Chinese are religious. Although most practice traditional Chinese religions such as Taoism and long-standing foreign imports such as Buddhism, Protestant Christianity is probably the fastest growing religion, with at least 38 million adherents today. (about 3% of the population), compared to 22 million per decade. there, depending on which governments count. The actual number is likely much higher: perhaps as many as 22 million more Chinese Protestants worship in unregistered underground churches, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame. As China also has 10 to 12 million Catholics, there are more Christians in China today than in France (38m) or Germany (43m). Together, Christians and countries have estimated that 23 million Muslims may now outnumber Communist Party members (92 million). Indeed, an unknown number of party members attend church and local committee meetings.
But as they grow in numbers, the country’s worshipers face increasingly stringent state scrutiny. China’s constitution nominally guarantees freedom of religious belief. But since Mr. Xi came to power in 2012, the government has tightened its control over religious groups in an effort to eliminate possible sources of dissent or secession. Government-approved versions of traditional beliefs were promoted, and those considered alien and threatening were suppressed. For hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Western Xinjiang Province, this has meant detention, re-education, and forced secularization. For many Christians this has meant overturned crosses, closed churches and, in some cases, prison. In December, Wang Yi, the pastor of an underground church in Chengdu, capital of southwest Sichuan province, was sentenced to nine years in prison for inciting subversion, a charge normally reserved for political dissidents.
Preachers face severe surveillance. While clergy from state-sanctioned churches are invited to lecture on party-favoring topics, such as the mix of Christianity and Chinese secular culture, underground pastors often address taboo topics, such as the existence of demons and miracles, or worse yet, the importance of proselytizing to friends and colleagues. Yet research suggests the government may need to continue to tolerate some of these in formal churches, or risk losing their followers turning elsewhere. In 2017 and 2018, Harris Doshay, a doctoral student at Princeton University, attended and analyzed sermons delivered by ministers of the Three Sos Patriotic Movement, the state-controlled Protestant church. Mr. Doshay found that the faithful showed their preference by voting with their eyelids: if the prayer remained within the party limits, many, in a coherent and sometimes rather demonstrative way, decided to take a nap.
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