Xing Liu never met a Christian until he was in his 20s. Growing up in China, where religious repression was part of life, he nonetheless accepted an invitation to an underground house church 19 years ago. So moved emotionally, he and his wife were baptized in a ceremony over a plastic bathtub on an Easter Sunday.

The joyful occasion had serious undertones. The people arriving at the house entered silently at different times. They parked their bikes in scattered locations. They treaded carefully on the creaky wooden floor. The Christians gathered in a living room had one priority beyond praising Jesus' resurrection — being invisible to the outside world.

"If we were in China today, I don't know if we could celebrate Easter because government control of the church is much stronger," said Liu, now the pastor of Minnesota Mandarin Christian Church in Edina. "It's a difficult time."

Liu is among the Chinese faithful living in Minnesota who, on this Christian holy day, are praying for their communities back home. While the church has never been free in China, it had been tolerated to some extent in recent decades. Now a government crackdown has led to the arrest and harassment of thousands of Christians, stepped-up surveillance, cross removal campaigns and more, according to human rights groups.

The persecution has cast a shadow 6,000 miles away in Minnesota, where fear still grips many in the Chinese Christian community. Their churches here, for example, don't publish membership directories with photos and personal information, as many parishioners worry the information could get back to China and jeopardize loved ones or their own ability to travel.

For similar reasons, missionaries living in Minnesota request zero public attention because they could also face detention and arrest. Many Chinese Christians are careful what they post on social media and avoid direct contact with Christians back home.

The Pew Research Center, which annually tracks government religious restrictions in 198 countries, placed China at the top of its list in 2016, the most recent year available. ChinaAid, a Texas nonprofit that is a leading U.S. research group on Christianity in China, estimated more than a million Christians faced some type of harassment, arrest or persecution in 2018, compared with 223,000 in 2017.

"Freedoms that were tolerated five, 10 years ago are getting smaller," said Prof. Karrie Koesel, a China religion scholar at the University of Notre Dame. "One big difference is we have a change in leadership, President Xi Jinping, who is consolidating power. And he's now president for life. This has enormous implications for religious freedom."

Becoming Christian

On a recent Sunday, about 70 Chinese faithful gathered in the pews of the sunny chapel of the Minnesota Mandarin Christian Church, one of at least six Chinese Christian churches in the Twin Cities. Nearly all the members are from mainland China and never set foot in a church until they came to this country.

Liu preached from the podium, and his wife, Jingjing Liu, took a break from teaching Sunday school and listened from the front pew.

The couple's story sheds light on why and how Christianity is spreading across China, which Pew Research estimates is home to 67 million Christian faithful. Xing Liu had no interest in Christianity until he was in college, when he learned that 18th-century scientist Isaac Newton was a Christian.

"I was surprised because Newton was a great scientist," said Liu. "I thought, 'He's a very smart guy. Something must have changed his mind.' "

Meanwhile his wife, then a teacher, met her first Christian at school. The colleague invited her to meet with a Christian elder, and her husband met him, too. Soon they were part of an underground church community that they say transformed their lives and fed a spiritual void.

When Liu received a job offer in Minnesota, they were thrilled that the secrecy surrounding their religious life was finally over.

One of the couple's friends at church is a mother recently returned from China. She witnessed firsthand the new government rules to curb Christianity, or at least force it to align with communist ideals. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear for herself and her family.

For starters, the government now can dictate when worship services are held, said the woman, echoing reports from human rights groups. In the central China community she visited, holding services on Sunday during the day was forbidden — just at night or midweek.

Since house churches are under threat, she went to a government-sanctioned church near her family's home. Walking downstairs, she noticed a camera near the ceiling filming everyone. Meanwhile, the walls of the church room, which once had Bible verses and psalms, now just had a quote from President Xi. No physical cross was present, just a cross projected on a screen.

"Turn off the projector and the cross goes away," she said.

When she and her daughter and her mother sat down, they were immediately approached and told that the daughter must leave. Children under age 18 in China are barred from religious services.

The experience was frightening, said the Minneapolis mother. "Because I was monitored, I think, 'Will they stop me at the airport? It has happened to others.' "

Difficult to help

The surveillance and potential for persecution has made it difficult for Minnesota's Chinese Christian community — or for any foreigners — to assist the faithful back home.

One Twin Cities minister said he used to donate money to a house church but stopped because he didn't want to call attention to it. Besides, there are reports of police entering those churches and confiscating funds because they are "illegal organizations."

Some Minnesotans also used to order Bibles online and have them shipped to a friend or pastor in China. But last year the Chinese government banned online retailers from selling Bibles there.

Even phone calls or e-mails of support to Christians in China have been curbed or ended to avoid potential repercussions.

Churches such as Minnesota Faith Chinese Lutheran Church in Roseville instead have sent money to help orphanages and the poor. Explained Pastor Shen Lin: "We don't want to offend."

The clampdown, while widespread, is not uniformly felt across China, which is a huge and diverse country. Its other religions, in particular Muslims, are also reeling from the war against religion. Koesel said much depends on whether local officials in cities and villages implement religion policies in the way the central government intends.

That knowledge provides a ray of hope to Christians here.

"There is a Chinese proverb that highlights this disconnect," said Koesel. "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away."

Christians hope the emperor stays far away, and that like Christ in the Easter story, the church will be reborn.

"Persecution is not a new thing for Christians," said Jingjing Liu. "Maybe this is a dark time. The people in China now are fighters on the front line, but I believe things will change."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511