Christmastime in China's cities brings Santa Claus decorations, shopping, and Christmas Eve revelry. But the season also inspires worship, when Chinese flock to the government's official Three-Self churches, forcing police in some areas to convert surrounding streets into pedestrian walkways. Underground house churches reach out to curious locals, and Christian businesses celebrate for hours with parties and prayer.
The problem is, the government has noticed. Last month word spread through house churches to avoid or mute Christmas events. Even so, Christians saw a pattern of arrests, convictions, and church raids during the holiday, revealing official worries that-apart from the glitter and gift-buying-the holiday is creating more converts.
- In Beijing, authorities raided the house church of imprisoned pastor Cai Zhuohua Dec. 23.
- In Duolon County, Inner Mongolia, on Dec. 29 about 30 policemen and religious affairs bureau staff disrupted a church's Christmas celebration, detaining three leaders, according to the China Aid Association.
- In Houcheng County, Xinjiang Province, in an apparent effort to curtail Christmas services, authorities re-arrested church leader Lou Yuanqi Dec. 23, after releasing him from detention just one month earlier. Officials released him on bail, pending trial.
- In Zhejiang Province, after a 12-hour trial Dec. 22, a court sentenced eight house church members in Xiaoshan District, Hangzhou City, to prison terms of one to three years. Police arrested the men and women for supposedly inciting violence during a July 2006 demolition of their church.
"The government doesn't want to see more growth of the church because of the Christmas season," said Bob Fu, President of the China Aid Association. "In Inner Mongolia, 120 people were there who were nonbelievers. The government is worried about evangelism without control."
Some cities saw fewer constraints, and even where restrictions are in place, Christians persevered. WORLD interviewed a Christian businessman who spoke at several Christmas business events last year but cannot be identified to avoid an official backlash against him and fellow believers where he visited.
In Beijing, the businessman said, authorities warned a private club to inform them if anyone booked rooms for a Christmas party. Still, some Christians negotiated with the club-which kept quiet to keep its profit-to continue with the event at which the businessman spoke. Given the risk of angering local officials, he asked one host if he should pray. "He looked at me with wide eyes and said, 'How can we not offer a prayer, because there are so many newcomers?'"
In a southern city, supervision was much looser. A four-star hotel openly advertised a Christmas party, an apparently common scene throughout the city. And elsewhere, employees of one Chinese company-some 250 in all-organized a five-hour Christmas celebration, the businessman said.
The festivities are "alarming to the government because they may not see such a festive mood when it comes to traditional Chinese holidays," the businessman said. He interprets a holiday backlash against Christians as part of a broader, months-long effort to clamp down on civil society.
Other lawyers and human-rights activists have suffered unfair trials and imprisonment over the last year. On Dec. 22, Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who protested human-rights abuses and sided with the Buddhist-influenced Falun Gong sect received a suspended sentence of three years for "inciting subversion." In November, blind activist Chen Guangcheng received four years in prison for his campaign exposing forced sterilizations and abortions around Linyi City, Shandong Province.
A few Chinese do seem unhappy about the Christmas cheer: In December, 10 Ph.D. students from top universities circulated an online petition calling on their countrymen to boycott the decorations and greetings-even bemoaning long restaurant lines on Christmas Eve-because most Chinese do not know what the holiday means. Government media echoed the students' concerns about losing Chinese culture. Officials know they have a bigger problem if Christmas means more and more Chinese are simply celebrating the birth of Christ.