For Chinese, Jesus may well upstage Mao

  • Article by: JOSHUA KEATING , Slate
  • Updated: April 23, 2014 - 6:09 PM

China’s on track to be the biggest Christian nation.

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Children sing anthems during a Christmas mass one recent Christmas Eve in Mianzhu in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

Photo: Zheng Duo • Color China Photo/AP,

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China likely already has more Protestants — an estimated 58 million — than South Africa or Brazil, major centers of evangelical revival and 67 million Christians in all — larger than the total population of France. More people go to church on Sunday in China than in all of Europe. But Tom Philips of the Telegraph suggests that this growth is just in its early stages:

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana and author of “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.” “Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change. …”

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, Yang predicted.

To a certain extent, this is just a “China is really big” story. But Christianity’s rise is nonetheless fascinating, given the constraints it has faced in an authoritarian, officially atheist country.

Christianity in China is divided between officially sanctioned “patriotic” churches and unsanctioned underground churches, often operating out of private homes, which are frequently subject to crackdowns by the authorities. (The official number of Christians in China is only about 25 million, but that’s generally agreed to be extremely low.)

This has, not surprisingly, led to tension between the church and the Vatican, which doesn’t recognize the authority of the Beijing-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Church and has excommunicated its bishops. “Underground” Catholic churches, meanwhile, have been fiercely suppressed by the state.

Pope Francis has said that he wants “friendly relations with China” and that he plans to visit this summer, though it’s hard to see how this fundamental dispute could be overcome unless one of these institutions radically changes its way of doing business.

For what it’s worth, the church seems to be winning the battle for hearts and minds on the Chinese Internet. Jesus is getting more love than Mao on Weibo these days.

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