Christian Living

chinaconnection 01/27/09

Could China's Underground Churches Soon Meet Openly?

With an estimated 130 million Christians in China who worship in house churches, the so-called "underground church" hardly goes unnoticed by the Chinese government.  While some of these Christians are imprisoned for their faith, the vast majority simply worship in small groups beyond the watchful eye of the government.

For the most part (though there are many exceptions), there's almost a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it comes to house church Christians, since they don't register with any authorities, but as Jane Macartney of The Times Online reports, government officials and house church leaders recently had a secret meeting, possibly indicating more open worship for these Christians.

Considering that they met on the first day of the new Year of the Ox, this meeting could indicate a fresh start and possible reconciliation.  The Rev. Ezra Jin, founder of the Zion house church, told The Times, "the government is anxious to work out the way to go forward," and he sees reconciliation ahead.

At the same time, it seems a bit counterintuitive that at the same time the Chinese government is cracking down on content on both the Internet and mobile phones, it would loosen restrictions on religious believers.  The recent "Charter 08," which calls for improved human rights in China, has not received a warm reception from Chinese leadership, and students at Peking University are now banned from signing it.

In the midst of these crackdowns on human rights, why would the Chinese leadership open the doors of dialogue and reconciliation with the millions of house church Christians?  Are they a lesser evil than the staunch human rights supporters, or is leadership adopting the method of keeping friends close and enemies closer? 

The optimist in me would like these meetings to usher in a new era of religious freedom for Chinese house church worshipers, but the realist in me is more inclined to adopt the wait-and-see approach. Hopefully these won't just be empty conversations, or worse.