Chinese paradox: Bigger churches, more persecution

Religion | Angela Lu

Chinese paradox: Bigger churches, more persecution

A believer prays while others line up to receive Communion during a morning Mass at Beijing's official Catholic church South Cathedral in China.
Associated Press/Photo by Alexander F. Yuan

China opened its largest church last month to keep up with the growing number of Christians and to demonstrate its “support” of religion, according to The Christian Times. But a few weeks later, the government reminded the country who was in power when officials warned the new pope not to interfere with the country’s Catholic population.

The impressive 66,672 square foot Liu Shi Church, in Wenzhou, has two-tiered, auditorium-style seating for 5,000 congregants. The sanctuary includes looming TV monitors and a large organ. The church is topped with a cross stretching more than 5,000 feet. 

The construction took 10 years and support from all levels of government, wrote blogger Shi Hengtan, a Christian scholar and professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of World Religions: “It is a domestic breakthrough. In fact, that a district township was able to build such a grand church can be considered miraculous.”

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Churches are not a rarity in Wenzhou, which is called “the Jerusalem of China” for its large Christian population. Some estimates say 15 to 30 percent of the population of 10 million are Christians, making it the most Christian city in the country. Wenzhou also is believed to have about 1,800 churches and meeting places for Christians, most of them not registered with the government.

Registered churches like Liu Shi Church need government approval to hire pastors, who are required to have attended government-sanctioned seminaries. But the amount of government control over churches varies from region to region. For instance, whileJoseph Gu, pastor of megachurch Chongyi Church in Hangzhou preached the opening sermon, church leaders also invited a pastor from Taiwan to lead the evangelistic revival meeting and Canadian music team CHANNEL to lead worship. Taiwan’s democratic government does not have religious restrictions.

While Liu Shi Church’s opening was good news for Protestants, on Thursday the Chinese government again displayed its opposition to religion not sanctioned by the state. Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, congratulated the new Pope Francis, and said the country would work to improve relations with the Vatican. But she also said the Vatican “must stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, including in the name of religion.” The Vatican needs to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to see relations with Beijing improve, Hua said.

China’s relationship with the Vatican has been highly contentious. The Chinese government appoints the church’s bishops, rather than allowing the pope to appoint them. An estimated 12 million Catholics live in China, with a majority of them worshiping outside the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic church. About 40 bishops are unregistered by the Chinese government but recognized by the Vatican.

The Vatican has said it would move its embassy from Taiwan to mainland China if the government allowed Chinese Catholics to worship freely and without Communist Party restrictions.

For example, Shanghai’s would-be bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, was stripped of his title and remains under virtual house arrest nine months after announcing he had  withdrawn from the state-sponsored Catholic church.

Despite such incidents, the Chinese Catholic church remains active, and on Thursday, Beijing’s Church of the Savior was nearly full for a special Mass honoring the new pope. 

"We Catholics are very happy and supportive to learn of the ordination of the new pope," parishioner Wang Ying said as she left the service. “We wish the new pope good health and we hope that we Chinese Catholics are in his prayers.”

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