Despite the best efforts of China's Communist government, Christianity is on the rise in the nation of nearly 1.4 billion people. Officials across the country have torn down churches, detained Christians, and worked to ensure that religious leaders are kept out of China. And though the Communist Party is the world's largest atheist organization, it is finding Christianity hard to contain.
According to a recent article in The Economist, up to 100 million Christians live in the country, and by 2030, China could be home to the largest Christian population in the world. A 2010 Pew Research Center polling estimated that 58 million Protestants lived in the country.
Under three decades of ruling by Mao Zedong, as many as half a million Chinese Christians were killed while tens of thousands more were sent off to labor camps because of their faith. After Mao's death in 1976, the persecution he inflicted on Christians continued, but churches began to pop up across the country later that decade.
The coastal city of Wenzhou - just over 1,000 miles south of the capital of Beijing - has been an area to quietly and safely practice Christianity. While cities of comparable size may have a dozen or so known churches sprinkled throughout, Wenzhou boasts hundreds, and is known as the "Jerusalem of the East."
In April, the government deemed more than 300 crosses on area churches as illegal structures. As The Economist reported, parishioners linked arms to create a human shield to protect their church buildings from attack. Singing hymns and crying, many had no choice but to stand by as crosses were ripped off their place of worship.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric, they're like bandits and we are furious with them," says Chen Zhi'ai, a church leader in the Wenzhou area. "Today we've seen the fundamental symbol of our faith violated and it hurts us deep inside our hearts."
In September 2013, government officials praised the engineering of one of the city's landmark church buildings - known for its majestic steeples. But just seven months later, it was demolished, even though it was a government-approved project under the official "Three-Self Patriotic Movement," a state-sanctioned Protestant church, according to CNN.
Even with incidents like these, practicing Christians are increasing in numbers across the country - a fact that may be concerning to communist authorities. While roughly 57,000 churches - classified as "Three Self" churches - claim complete loyalty to China, and register with the government, an unknown number of Christians attend "house churches." These churches are unregistered, attract large groups of believers, and are often the home church of Christians who suffered under Mao's deadly domination.
As The Economist wrote, "Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87 million strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants." In Wenzhou, Christians make up 15 percent of the population.
And with Christianity spreading, the gap between Three Self and house churches is becoming harder and harder to define. Even with a crackdown in several parts of the country to discourage the further advance of the gospel, it's simply not working. Christians are increasing in boldness in their faith and are coming out of the shadows, forcing the Chinese government to contemplate what changes - if any - should be made.
"Any shift in official thinking on religion would have big ramifications for the way china handles a host of domestic challenges. And yet, there is no way that the Chinese government is going to be able to avoid dealing directly with the question of Christianity," The Economist said.
Unfortunately for Communist leaders in China, they have most likely failed to consider the strength of the opponent they are facing. As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, "And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."