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Long read: A changing China

The 2018 World Watch List launched in January, revealing the top 50 most dangerous countries in the world to follow Jesus. China, a nation with a well-known history of persecution, came in at #43.

In 2011, China was ranked as the 21st hardest place to be a Christian. In 2012 China was ranked at 37. And now the country’s steady decline on the World Watch List suggests questions of a changing China.

A very different China

In 1981, China found itself in a period of transition. Chairman Mao had died and left behind a strong Communist grip on the country. Christians weren’t allowed to gather together at church or own a Bible. Many believers were imprisoned, tortured or even killed for their faith.

That year, on a secluded beach, a team of dedicated Christians from Open Doors smuggled one million Bibles into China – overnight. The word of God flooded into the country.

Image: A Chinese Christian reading one of the Bibles that was delivered on the beach.

Present day China is hardly the same. Political, economic and social shifts have all greatly impacted the church. The Han Chinese (majority ethnic population) experience relative freedoms in the cities to follow Jesus and share the gospel.

Freedom of religion is granted under the constitution. Christians can also attend church on Sunday. They have the choice of a ‘Three Self Church’ (run by the government) or a house church. The Three Self Churches operate under strict guidelines from the government, and many house churches are still ‘hidden’ in plain sight.

Image: A Three Self Church service in Beijing.

A new Call

Li* and Fu were two young church leaders in Beijing.

“Our pastor was imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s,” Li said. “He doesn’t talk about it very often, but it is difficult to believe that was happening only 30 years ago. Today, we have to take some ‘precautions’ to avoid trouble, but the government often lets us be… as long as we don’t have gatherings that are too large.”

Pastor Li has a large house church with many members who attend regularly. He chose not to register with the Three Self Church Movement.

“The government usually lets us meet in peace,” Li said. “But if local authorities feel like our activities are ‘getting out of control’, the Chief of Police will ‘stop by for tea’ in hopes of preventing any Christian outreach.”

Many churches continue to send missionaries to Muslim countries and have pledged to release 20,000 missionaries by 2030.

“We are able to go to countries where some of our brothers and sisters in the West have difficulty getting into,” Li said. “It is amazing how God has matured the church of China through previous years of persecution. But now we must be self-reliant, and we must be willing to answer His call to missions.”

As these Han Chinese leaders have experienced new freedoms in recent years, they also expressed gratitude for their brothers and sisters around the world who stood with them while they faced extreme persecution.

“We are so thankful for how our brothers and sisters around the world prayed for and supported us during some of the most extreme years of persecution,” shared one Christian leader. “Now, it is our responsibility to stand with Christians in countries where they are facing persecution like we once did.”

Image: A house church meeting.

Still suffering for the Gospel

This degree of freedom isn’t the case for everyone. China’s movements down the World Watch List also doesn’t mean Christians aren’t persecuted for their faith.

Pastor Askar* is from Xinjiang, a province in the north-western part of China, bordering countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. In recent years, Islamic extremism had taken root in Xinjiang and there had been violent attacks. The local government were fearful of any religious gatherings. For this reason, Pastor Askar and his church were forced to meet in secret.

“It can be difficult to do everything that Christians are called to do when we are forced to meet in secret, but we have found ways to follow God’s commands,” Pastor Askar said.

“In the summer, we wait until midnight so nobody will see us, and then we go to the lake to baptise a new believer. But in the winter, it is too cold to do that, so I baptise new believers with a water bottle inside.”

If Pastor Askar and his congregation were caught meeting together, they could face several years in prison.

Na* is a Christian leader originally from a Muslim family. When she became a Christian 14 years ago, she took a great risk. Many new believers are seen as traitors and bring shame to their family. Some are even kidnapped and threatened until they return to Islam.

“There was a woman in my church who was kidnapped by her family when they found out she converted,” Na said. “They took her back to her home village and broke her legs so she could not escape and then tried to force her to be a Muslim again.”

Despite the increased cost to one’s personal safety, many Muslims continue to come to Christ.

Looking Ahead

On January 11, 2018, one of China’s most notorious mega-churches fell to the ground. The church was demolished by the state as part of a routine removal of illegal (unregistered) buildings.

The church began in 1992 and was made up of 50,000 members. In 2009 the same church was also targeted and Bibles were confiscated. Some church leaders were sentenced to prison.

The future is uncertain for Christians in China. Though their freedom to follow Jesus has increased, new religious regulations coming into place on 1 February 2018 could severely impact the activities of unregistered churches. The regulations could mean house church leaders receive serious fines, and Christian publishing and online activity could also be affected.

As we thank God for changes experienced by the church in China, it’s important to continue to pray for those still suffering for their faith. Now is also a significant time for the body of Christ to lift up the nation in the days to come.

*Names changed for security purposes

A version of this article first appeared on the Open Doors Australia website, and was written by Beth Ross

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imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.