BEIJING – For the first time since the establishment of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949, two Christian churches are rising in the Chinese Capital, marking a great development for the nation infamous for persecuting underground worshippers.
While the exact date on the construction is not yet confirmed, the Beijing Religious Affairs Office released that the churches in eastern and southwestern Beijing should be completed by Christmas, 2004. According to a staff member in the office, the construction began last December.
The churches were described as being simply “Christian,” and were unclear as to whether they would be Protestant or Catholic. China’s state-sanctioned “Three-self Patriotic” churches have no official ties to organizations and denominations abroad, including the Vatican.
While the number of Christians has grown significantly since the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1976, the number of places to worship has been stagnant. Many of the places are cramped or dilapidated. Often times, Christians who are not part of the “Three-self Church” are persecuted in their homes and seized without warrant.
"No matter who builds the new ones, it is good news for believers because they have more places to go," said Zhao Donghua, head of the religion department at Peking University.
"The city seriously lacks ritual places, and the current distribution of religious sites is unbalanced," People's Daily said, citing Na Cang, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group to the government.
Officially registered Chinese Catholics are at 10 million and Protestants at 15 million. However, experts say tens of millions more believers belong to unauthorized churches. There is no indication that the approval of two new churches in the capital signals any change in policy. Observers say that the effort most likely represents an effort by an increasingly savvy leadership to entice Chinese Christians into joining the state-backed faith, thus making them abandon their underground congregations and rendering them less of a threat.
"Building new churches is indeed a new step, and it's a good publicity move," said Rudolf Wagner, chairman of the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
"There's a doublehanded approach — crack down on anything that's not registered activity and pull people into the government-sponsored churches," Wagner said. "It could represent an offer — you can go legal, if you stay within the rules."
Zhao hinted at this notion as well, saying the new structures would "be appealing to those members of family churches" — the Chinese government's term for the predominantly rural underground churches that it has outlawed.
Wagner sees the church projects as another indication that the Chinese leadership is seeking a cultural balance, be it secular or religious.
"Chinese leaders have been trying to create spaces for some sort of privacy for their people. So you can have a very free discussion in China of what color tile you want in your bathroom," Wagner said.
"Religion, as long as it stays within rigid bounds, comes into that category," he said. "You can privately do your thing, as long as you don't set up an organization or break up the monopoly of the party."