Beijing Holds Secret Talks With Banned Churches As 100 Million Defy Party Rules

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, Times database

Christians are allowed to worship under the official religious body but 100 million have turned to ‘house churches’

A secret meeting between Chinese officials and leaders of the banned underground Protestant Church has marked the first significant step towards reconciliation in decades.

The discussions, which were held in an office in Beijing, were the first time that members of the Government and stalwarts of the outlawed “house churches” had sat down as negotiators rather than foes, The Times has learnt.

The timing was significant: this year is the 60th anniversary of communist power and the Government is keen to ensure that there are no disturbances to mar its celebrations. The Year of the Ox also begins today and Beijing is anxious to usher in a year of stability despite economic difficulties.

For three decades China has allowed officially sanctioned churches to operate within strict limits. Protestants are supposed to worship under the aegis of the official religious body, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement “” standing for self-governing, self-teaching and self-supporting. Catholics can worship in churches run by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Other Christian organisations are illegal.

In recent years the number of Christians has soared. Officials privately estimate the total at 130 million “” far outstripping the 74 million members of the Communist Party. Most are Protestants and are affiliated with unofficial house churches.

Church leaders believe this is one reason why the State Council Development Research Centre “” an official party think-tank “” called the two breakthrough meetings late last year. The first involved about a dozen academics and lawyers, many known to be members of the unofficial Church. The second brought together six house church leaders.

No representatives of the underground Catholic Church were invited “” the Vatican is still viewed by the Communist Party as a rival force and tentative talks yielded little progress.

Pastor Ezra Jin, who started the Zion Church about two years ago, said that he felt the invitation had been inevitable. “The Government has a more open attitude towards religion so when they asked me to come I didn’t need them to explain why,” he said.

Church leaders said that the Government “” including the police, who have raided and crushed underground churches for years “” had realised that the time for confrontation had passed.

Several hundred worshippers gather each Sunday with Pastor Jin to sing hymns and pray in an anonymous office building in the capital; many more crowd into living rooms across China to worship together, even if they cannot find someone to officiate.

The official Church puts the number of Protestants at about 21 million and Catholics at about 5 million. That means more than 100 million Christians are worshipping independently.

Pastor Jin told The Times: “The Government is anxious to work out the way to go forward. They have understood that the Protestant Church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.”

He added that the Government wanted to discuss the position of house churches and to evaluate whether they posed a threat to the regime. They also wanted to know why the house churches could not accept the leadership of the official body.

Even more surprisingly, they appeared to want advice. “They wanted to know our requirements when it comes to setting future policy,” Pastor Jin said, without elaborating.

In a report on the meeting, another house church pastor wrote that one of the main topics was the difficulty of keeping the unofficial church under the Government’s heel. Pastors say that raids, fines and even punishments such as re-education through labour are no longer effective; if one church is broken up new ones are started.

A senior economist, who openly declares his faith, said: “The closer understanding may have come in meetings between jailed pastors and the police, and those changes in attitude meant this day could come.”

Faith in China

“” There have been several attempts to introduce Christianity to China since about the 7th century but most failed until the start of the 19th century

“” Robert Morrison is regarded by Protestants as being the first Christian missionary to China “” he arrived in Macau in 1807. He produced a Chinese translation of the Bible

“” The Government officially recognises five religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each has a state-sponsored religious body

“” Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, although there are numerous restrictions including prohibitions against proselytising and other activities deemed to “disturb public order”

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