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China: Religious demography and house churches

Last November (21-22, Nov 2008), the China State Council Development Research Center organized a seminar on “Christianity and Social Harmony — Special Session on House Church”. This is the first of its kind organized by a Chinese governmental sector. However, soon after the seminar, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a statement for banning activities organized by the China Federation of Christian House Churches.

Latest Crackdown

The statement said (via cool mountain house at douban):

经查,中国家庭教会联合会未经登记,擅自以社会团体名义进行活动,依据《社会团体登记管理条例》第三十五条的规定,决定取缔中国家庭教会联合会。

Upon investigation, the China Federation of Christian House Churches has not been registered but operated as an proper association. According to Article 35 of the Registration of Social Organizations Ordinance, all activities organized by the China Federation of Christian House Churches are to be banned.

The douban article (reposted from artblog) points out that:

据学者调查研究,未登记的民间组织,是已登记的数量的10倍。2008年中国的民间组织尤其是家庭教会,在5·12大地震中积极参与赈灾事工,为构建和谐社会、见证爱与公义做出了重要贡献。而民政部选择基督教家庭教会联合会为打击的目标,这首先显示出,民政部门可能继公安部门和宗教管理部门之后,成为打击家庭教会的第三个主力,因此基督徒必须对此有足够的警惕,共同为中国的爱与公义祷告,也为家庭教会在各种复杂的环境中站稳真理和生命的根基祷告;其次,这意味着整个民间社会十分之九的成长被置于非法的地位,这是改革开放三十年之际,严重违反执政党和国家执政方略的、作为和谐社会第一要义的民主法治的倒行逆施。

According to academic research, the number of unregistered NGOs is 10 times that of the registered ones. In 2008, NGOs in particular house churches have played a significant role in relief work after May 12 earthquake and contributed to the development of harmonious society. Now that the Ministry of Civil Affairs has pinpointed the China Federation of Christian House Churches as the target of crack down, it seems that the Ministry will become the third major force following the public security and religion department in repressing house churches. All Christians must be aware of such a trend and pray for Love and Justice in China, pray for the fundamental values of house churches in an difficult environment. It also implies that a large sector of the civil society has been defined illegal. It is a set back at the 30th anniversary of opening-up and reform, a severe violation of democracy and rule of law which is the essence of the ruling party and state policies and the harmonious society.

Below is a brief update of the religious demography in the past decade, which gives some background to the recent crackdown.

Religious demography

On October 16, 1997, China’s State Council Information Center released the “White Paper: Freedom of Religious Belief in China”, claiming:

据不完全统计,中国现有各种宗教信徒一亿多人,宗教活动场所8.5万余处,宗教教职人员约30万人,宗教团体3000多个。宗教团体还办有培养宗教教职人员的宗教院校74所。

According to incomplete statistics, there are over 100 million followers of various religious faiths, more than 85,000 sites for religious activities, some 300,000 clergy and over 3,000 religious organizations throughout China. In addition, there are 74 religious schools and colleges run by religious organizations for training clerical personnel.

Very interestingly, the White Paper on Progress in China’s Human Rights Cause in 2004 released on April 13, 2005 by China’s State Council Information Center says China’s religious demography remains 100 million, the clergy members remain 3000, 000, and the number of national and regional religious organizations also remains unchanged (more than 3,000), but the number of venues for religious activities rose to 100, 000.

According to China’s first major survey on religious beliefs conducted by professors Tong Shijun (童世骏) and Liu Zhongyu (刘仲宇) of Shanghai-based East China Normal University, 31.4 percent of Chinese aged 16 and above (or about 300 million) are religious. This figure is three times the official figure released in 2005.

It is noteworthy that 62 percent of the religious believers surveyed are in the 16-39 age groups, while only 9.6 percent are 55 years old or older.

According to this survey, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Christianity and Islam are the top five religions, accounting for 67.4% of believers. About 200 million people are Buddists, Taoists or worshippers of legendary figures, accounting for 66.1 per cent of all believers. The survey finds 12% of all believers, or 40 million, are Christians.

USA’s “International Religious Freedom Report 2007: China” released on September 14, 2007 quoted China’s governmental figures as follows:

There are more than 100 million Buddhists;

There are more than 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns, more than 1,500 Taoist temples, and two Taoist schools;

There are as many as 20 million Muslims and 10 predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Hui, estimated to number nearly 10 million;

There are 5.3 million persons registered with China’s official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), and an equal or greater number who worship in unregistered Catholic churches affiliated with the Vatican;

Officials estimated that at least 20 million Christians worship in official churches;

According to NGO reports, Ye Xiaowen, Director of State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said to audiences at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that the number of Christians had reached 130 million by the end of 2006, including about 20 million Catholics.

The latest report about China’s religious demography, appearing in a Canadian newspaper, suggests:

16 per cent of Chinese nationals adhere to state-sanctioned Buddhist institutions; almost 2 per cent go to approved Protestant Christian churches; another one per cent attend official Catholic churches; more than one per cent go to sanctioned Muslim mosques, and another one per cent are Taoist.

Family Church

The most controversial figure is how many people attend “family churches”, “house churches” or “underground churches” in China. Li Fan(李凡)exposed that

总的基督教如果按照家庭教会的统计所占人口数量在8000万到一个亿之间。……。在中国,80%的基督教成员是家庭教会成员。

figures released by house churches show there are 80 million to 100 million Christians in China. And 80% of them, i.e. 64 million to 80 million, are house church adherents.

It is said that the former US President George Bush once urged

布什总统曾说,“中国将近一个亿的家庭教会,应该公开自己的身份,应该浮出水面,应该改变地下的状态”。

it is the time for the 100 million house church followers to surface in China.

Although there is a new wave of crackdown after the November seminar on House church, it has also stimulated some discussion about the surfacing of church activities in China. An article written by Luke Lam has been reposted in many blogs (via yaoqiguang):

首先,我们应该提防的是世俗化的力量和现代思潮。曾有一个弟兄半开玩笑地跟我说,要拆毁一个教会,不是压迫它的发展,而是要给它钱,使它富有。…多年来,福音派着重个人的宗教经历,传福音,教会增长,而忽略神学思想的发展,护教与对文化的批判与重建,我们该如何回应这些思潮?…如何有效建设本土化神学,成为教会和基督教学术界值得深思慎重的地方。

First of all, we have to be aware of the secular force and contemporary thoughts. Once a brother jokingly said that, an effective way to ruin a church is not by oppression, but by donation to it, making it rich… For many years, the Evangelicals stress personal religious experiences, the reading of gospel and the growth of believers, while neglecting the development of theology and the critical aspects of Christianity. How are we to respond to such development?… How are we to reconstruct local theology? These are significant issues that the Church and Christian academics have to consider.

第二,教会制度和体制的完善是对教会公开化发展的要求。

Secondly, it is important to reform and perfect the Christian institution/Church in order to prepare for surfacing.

第三,教会要有承受复兴的预备。公开化给教会带来的正面影响无疑是信仰自由后教会的增长,但这上帝的赐福也要求我们能有承受的能力。

Thirdly, the Church has to prepare for its revival. We can anticipate the growth in the number of churches after the surfacing of house church activities, however we need to prepare ourselves for such blessing.

It seems that such a conclusion is too optimistic given the present political climate in China.

(This article is also contributed by Oiwan Lam).

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