In China, Churches Challenge the Rules

Local authorities tore down an unofficial church in a suburb of Hangzhou, China, in July after church members had nearly completed erecting their building.
Local authorities tore down an unofficial church in a suburb of Hangzhou, China, in July after church members had nearly completed erecting their building. (Anonymous Villager)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 1, 2006

WENZHOU, China -- A new breed of churches in this region of China has demonstrated a boldness and independence unmatched elsewhere in the country, despite strict government guidelines for places of worship.

Here in Wenzhou and the surrounding province of Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai, a growing number of congregations that began life as house churches -- unauthorized places of worship set up in private, often dilapidated homes -- have recently registered with the government, while continuing to spurn the rules of the official Protestant church in China. Like so many institutions in China, these churches now hover in a sort of legal netherworld.

The official church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, was founded in the 1950s to free religious Chinese from foreign funds and influence. Its name is derived from the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of the Gospel.

The fact that many Christians in this region have turned away from the official church's beliefs, analysts say, is a result of history and prosperity.

"Wenzhou's Christians have a lot of social connections, a lot of friends, they're very capable," said Chen Cun-fu, director of the Institute of Christianity and Cross-Cultural Studies at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. "They're smart, they know how to do things. They're young, they have money, they have their own cars and cellphones."

Meanwhile, a growing number of college students, lawyers, businessmen and preachers educated abroad are also joining illegal house churches.

According to the rules of China's official church, midweek services are forbidden, as is proselytizing outside of church. But the rules are often bent, depending on the relationship between local officials and church leaders, and some independent-minded churches refuse to attend official meetings or pay official fees.

The well-worn Bailouxia church, tucked away down a small lane in this prosperous city, began as an illegal house church. But the church registered with the local religious authorities, and now displays a cross outside the building.

On a recent day, four elderly parishioners stretched out in varnished wooden pews, napping under ceiling fans. In a back row, a toddler fussed as a woman plucked the eyebrows of another worshiper using a thread.

"God's temple is desolate," sang a preacher at an electric keyboard, leading about 60 people in a hymn. "Where is the watchman? The wall is collapsed and everybody is only taking care of themselves."

Clash Over a Building

Nothing illustrated the boldness of Zhejiang's Christians more clearly than the hasty building of an illegal house church this summer in a suburb of Hangzhou, the provincial capital. When local officials demolished the church, a massive riot ensued, with 3,000 protesters facing off against thousands of uniformed riot police, security guards and plainclothes police.

It was the most dramatic example in a series of arrests, raids and demolitions of churches considered illegal by the authorities. Some observers said the riot was only the latest chapter in a long-running battle between authorities and the more outspoken of China's growing population of 45 million to 65 million Christians. Other activists said it represented a stepped-up persecution of unregistered congregations.

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