TOPICS > Nation

Chinese Christians Face Religious Issues

December 25, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: Some say this is Shangri La, Mount Meili, the holy mountain in China’s Yunnan Province.

Shangri La was a fictional Tibetan monastery run by a Catholic priest. In amongst the Buddhist stupas, beyond the lost horizon, there are today real Catholic communities. Christmas is coming, and mass is being held at the tiny church in Cigu.

These are the descendants of Buddhist peasants who converted 150 years ago when European missionaries brought the Bible.

It’s not been easy. In Cigu village, the older people remember the Swiss missionary who was allegedly murdered by Buddhist monks in 1949, and more recently the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, when the Chinese Communist Party suppressed all religion.

BAIDOLO CAI (through translator): During the Cultural Revolution, I could only pray in my heart. Everybody took bits and pieces from the church, and the church was destroyed. Priests were chased away. Two or three of us would gather and worship in secret at home.

Tensions between church, government

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Christmas service. Father Tao Zhubin has 39 parishes to visit, spread across an area nearly the size of Britain. Everyone's come in their Sunday best, even the babies.

Most of the congregation are ethnic Tibetans; some Lisu, another minority.

It sounds as if they're chanting Buddhist mantras, but these are their hymns. This is an official church under the control of the Chinese government, not the Vatican.

This year, the Chinese authorities have angered Rome by consecrating several bishops without papal approval. The notice says this church supports the Communist Party.

REV. TAO ZHUBIN, Catholic Priest (through translator): Everyday when I'm in the church celebrating mass, I'm a Catholic priest, no question about it. I pray for the pope.

Then I have to distinguish whether I'm dealing with a religious or a political issue. If it's religion, I absolutely follow the church; if it's political, I follow the decision of the Chinese government.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Blessings for the youngest. Both Catholic and Protestant churches in China are divided between those who toe the government line and those who refuse. While these Christians may practice their religion freely, hundreds of others are in prison for distributing Bibles.

REV. TAO ZHUBIN (through translator): No government or regime would allow another force to be stronger than itself. The biggest obstacle is that the church can't expand.

We're allowed to worship, but we must do it in a legal place. Without funding, we can't build new churches. The only possible place to worship then is at home, and that's illegal.

Problems with independent religion

LINDSEY HILSUM: This is the public face of Christianity in China, and the government's quite happy with it because it comes under their control. What they can't tolerate is any religious group that tries to organize itself independently.

They have no problem with the religion anymore. But what they fear is anyone who might set up an independent structure, an alternative to the government and the party.

Two thousand kilometers away, in Beijing, that's exactly what's happening. Members of the Ark Church meet illegally in a private home. This year, they've had to move six times.

The believers are fervent. They tend to be middle class and influenced by American evangelists.

Earlier this year, Yu Jie was one of three Chinese Christian activists who met President Bush. He and others see themselves as heirs to the spirit of rebellion crushed in Tiananmen Square.

YU JIE, Writer (through translator): The Tiananmen incident in 1989 was a turning point. After that, the official ideology of Marxism and Mao Zedong thought was totally shattered, leaving a big void.

In the face of drastic social change, most Chinese people find themselves in a massive spiritual crisis. Their desire for belief is very strong.

The future of Christianity in China

LINDSEY HILSUM: In China, the spiritual is political. Christians at the Ark refuse to join the government-approved church because they want to be free.

Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in China, with most new converts joining the underground churches. It's hard for the government to stop the spread.

YU JIE (through translator): Once religious freedom is realized, other forms of freedom and democracy will be here. When that day comes, the Chinese Communist government will not be able to hang onto its one-party dictatorship.

The conflicts between people with faith -- Christians and other religious groups -- and the atheist Communist authority will be inevitable.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In Cigu, life is much harder than in the city. People here are still poor; religion, whether it's Buddhism or Christianity, provides comfort or hope. And no one seems to be thinking of rebellion.

After mass, the Tibetan Christians dance outside the church. The missionaries always complained that they found few converts in China, as the people were too traditional, too suspicious of foreigners.

But times have changed. And these Christians, like those who go to house churches, are part of a growing movement.

Soon, as many as 80 million Chinese may be Christian. That's 10 million more than are members of the Communist Party, something for the church to celebrate and the Chinese government to fear.