Among the actions China has been guilty of: Detentions, the kidnapping of bishops, crackdowns on underground churches, as well as foreign missionaries on their North Korean border, and in the past few months, even entire churches have been torn down in China under the premise of building code violations. The Christian community has reacted in large numbers, with thousands showing up to protest the demolitions.
The rapidly growing popularity of religion may be seen as a threat to the Communist Party’s authority. “There’s a pattern of pendular movement in the Chinese government’s stance towards religion, of being repressive and then of being accommodating,” says Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, at the University of Notre Dame. “I think that the Chinese government doesn’t know how to go about assessing the strain along those lines.”
So when Pope Francis was given permission to fly over China on his way to and from South Korea, many saw it as a sign of hope for religious freedom in China. The state-run Global Times calls it a sign of “possible détente.”
Meanwhile, there are religious groups in China that have not been sanctioned by the state that worship underground.
Jin Tianming is a priest and member of Beijing Shouwang Church, an underground Protestant community. His group of worshipers has had trouble finding a permanent location to hold church gatherings, frequently suffering harassment from police, with members of the church arrested or detained on occasion. “We put our beliefs above society. I don’t think the two are compatible in any way,” says Jin.
The existence of unregistered religious groups makes it difficult to calculate the number of Christians in China. A Pew Research Center study from 2011 estimates the number of Christians inside China at 67 million, about 5% of the country’s total population at the time, amongst which around 10 million are Catholics. This is compared to 10 million Christians in total in 1996.
According to researchers, the numbers are rising quickly. Professor Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, has predicted that China will be home to the largest Christian population by 2030.