China’s underground churches

China's underground churches
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The empty office starts to fill up as the pianist begins to play. The faithful arrive in droves, guided by the music and slowly start to sing. Their songs are hymns, for this is an underground church in Shanghai where more than 60 people gather every Sunday to worship Christ.

Currently there are more than 68 million Christians in China, mostly Protestants. Experts estimate that China could become the biggest Christian country in the world over the next few years. However, most practitioners reject the country’s state-sanctioned churches, which they accuse of serving the Communist Party of China’s interests and ideology. Sermons are vetted and censured, and some churches even have security cameras to watch over those who pray there. As a result, many Christians in China have no option but to meet in their houses or in office buildings; in places of prayer called ‘underground churches’.

Whilst these churches are not illegal per se, China is officially an atheist state, and in recent years, the government has struggled to contain the explosion of this religious movement.

In Zhejiang province, long considered the Christian heartland of China, thousands of crosses were removed from church steeples. And just this January, in northern Shanxi province, paramilitary police demolished one of China’s biggest evangelical mega-churches, one that was purportedly attended by 50,000 people,using bulldozers and dynamite.

As of this February, new regulations for religious affairs came into force, which had a specific focus on ‘underground churches’. If these places of worship do not register with the central government, the congregation faces arrest and the clergy and church administrators face confiscation of property.

In larger metropolises, such as Shanghai or Beijing, the faithful have often been persecuted and bullied by local authorities. However, these pressures don’t seem to scare China’s underground churchgoers. “Our faith is strong,” says Mr. Li, one of the elders at an underground church in Shanghai. “If we get shut down, we will pick up our things and worship somewhere else.”


The entrance of an underground church in Puxi, Shanghai.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

In this apartment in the centre of Shanghai, almost 40 people meet every Sunday to pray and share a meal. As the Communist Party of China tightens its grip on official state churches in an effort to maintain Chinese values and social order, an underground movement of churches is beginning to explode. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2010 there were more than 68 million Christians in China, but experts estimate that this number will increase significantly over the next few years.

Churchgoers worship in a rented office space, also in Puxi, Shanghai.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

This church has been in operation for under a year in a rented office space and has a congregation of more than 70 people. Officially, people in China are free to practice the religion of their choice and the state officially recognises five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. However, the state maintains a stranglehold on people’s religious lives and members of the Communist Party of China are not permitted to have any religious affiliation.

A man holds his Bible at an underground church in Puxi, Shanghai.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

China is the world’s leading publisher of Bibles. The Amity Printing Company, the only legal printer of Bibles in China, exports three out of four Bibles of the millions it prints every year, according to Christianity Today. However, just last week the Chinese government banned the online sale of Bibles. Their sale is only permitted in church bookstores.

A man reads a passage from the Bible, with the Shanghai skyline as a backdrop.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

“This is an underground church, but it is on the 18th floor,” jokes one of the church elders of an underground church in Shanghai, who asked not to be named. Despite the low-level persecution of Christians and the discouragement of Christianity, China is on course to be the world’s biggest Christian nation by 2030.

Women catch up on conversation after a Sunday service at an underground church in Shanghai.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

About half of China’s Christian population chooses to go to an underground church rather than one of the state-sponsored churches run by organisations such as the Catholic Patriotic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee and the Christian Council.“This kind of church has a much more familiar feel, you know everybody,” said one underground church member.“You come in, talk about your week and how you can be a better Christian.”

Ivy (centre) holds her older son’s hand while her husband David (almost out of frame, left) carries their youngest child.

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

Ivy discovered the Christian faith when she went to study abroad, where she met her British husband, David. “David is British, so according to the law, we cannot worship in the same place,” she complains. A government website for foreigners offers the following warning: “Foreigners should not participate in any political gatherings and should be aware that underground churches are monitored. Participation can be perceived as breaking the law and arrest can follow. Proselytizing is also not allowed, in or out of the classroom.” There is a growing fear that Christianity will be used to westernise China and undermine the government. In 2016, Xi Jingping gave a speech on religion in which he said that: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists.”

A small shrine at Ivy’s apartment, in Puxi, Shanghai features a plaque with the scripture: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Photo: Gonçalo Fonseca

Underground churches in China are held in a number of locations including office buildings and private homes.