BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush attended a state-run “patriotic” Christian church service in Beijing on Sunday, while across town underground worshippers applauded his call for unfettered religious freedom.
“My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” Bush told reporters outside the Gangwashi church in Beijing.
The type of worship that Bush, who calls himself a born-again Christian, advocates is perhaps better displayed in Pastor Deng Xiaobin’s church on the city’s northern outskirts.
There, on Sunday afternoon, Deng led his congregation through two hours of impassioned hymns, prayers and preaching.
“Today we offer a special prayer of thanks to President Bush coming to China and attending a Chinese church,” said one of the worshippers.
Deng’s apartment serves as an unofficial “house” church, one of thousands of underground churches growing in the shadows of official tolerance. Most such churches are in the countryside, where Christianity survived decades of persecution under Mao.
But Deng’s congregation includes 40 or more well-educated urbanites, many of them writers and lawyers with long records of challenging China’s controls on free speech and religion.
“We’re certainly growing, and more and more intellectuals are joining,” Deng said of China’s underground churches. Deng, 30, studied in an underground theology school in eastern China before moving to Beijing two years ago to run this church.
PIETY AND PROTEST
This convergence of piety and protest worries Chinas leaders and explains its resistance to Bush’s calls, church members said.
“I think we’re at a turning point. In years past, family churches were mostly in the countryside, but more and more intellectuals are turning to Christianity,” said Yu Jie, a writer who became a Christian in 2003.
“Our belief is a personal thing, but we also believe that churches will play a role in China’s democratisation.”
China has between 40 and 80 million active Christians, and their numbers are evenly divided between state-run and underground churches, according to expert estimates.
Only a minority of China’s free-thinking dissidents are Christian, but the number seems to be growing, many of them say.
“Everything I went through convinced me that God wants to change China,” said Li Baiguang, a legal scholar and rights campaigner. “We’ve witnessed this collapse of social values and this tyranny because people have no faith.”
Li was baptised and became a member of Deng’s Protestant congregation in July after earlier serving a month in prison for championing farmers’ political rights.
While many older Chinese Christians tend to avoid public controversy, fearful it will endanger their survival, younger activists are brandishing calls for religious freedom and political transformation.
They and several lawyers, some of them Christian, recently defended preacher Cai Zhuohua, who was sentenced to three years’ jail for printing the Bible without official permission.
FORCE FOR SUBVERSION
“Cai Zhuohua’s case brought together Christians and rights activists in a new way, and I think this is going to make both sides stronger in the future,” said Fan Yafeng, a Christian lawyer who defended Cai.
China’s constitution formally protects freedom of belief, but the government expects Christians to worship in “patriotic” churches under state control with clergy vetted by the state.
In March, China introduced regulations that allow family churches to apply for official approval.
But in internal speeches, China’s leaders have warned that religious revival is a force for subversion and potential chaos, and explain the registration policy as a way to “win over” believers, say sources familiar with the remarks.
In instructions on underground churches, Chinese president Hu Jintao was quoted as saying: “Even if they’re underground forces, we have to recognise that most of them have been deceived or cheated, and out of a spirit of humane concern we must do our best to win them over, educate them and unite with them.”
This year Chinese officials raided unregistered Protestant churches in northern and western China and also recently arrested several priests in the country’s underground Catholic church.
The Chinese government also continues to detain members of the Falun Gong sect, a spiritual movement that was outlawed after surrounding the Communist Party’s headquarters in 1999.
These harsh official attitudes make many members of China’s home churches wary of official registration, said Yu, the writer.
“We should follow the Bible. We don’t need the approval of a secular government to exist,” he said.
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