Onward, Christian Soldiers

When they praise the Lord, they close the windows. In a packed classroom in China's southern Henan province, 35 young Christians stand behind their desks singing the Hallelujah prayer. These students have pledged the next three years of their lives to this illegal seminary, one of the many run across China by members of the Chinese Protestant underground. Tucked away in a two-story apartment donated by a fellow believer, these future preachers study, eat and sleep together, girls in one room, boys in another. If the students want to leave the school, they must do so one or two at a time, at night, so as not to make the neighbors suspicious. They often go weeks without venturing outdoors. After the last Hallelujah, they open the windows.

Their faith doesn't come without sacrifice. One 24-year-old woman bursts into tears when she talks about her little brother, whom she hasn't seen in months. "It's OK," says the former migrant worker, jutting out her chin as she struggles to regain her composure. "I'm with Jesus." The sadness leaves her face when she talks about her future plans. She wants to travel to rural villages across China to convert others to her faith. Or, she says, wide-eyed, "Maybe I'll go to an Arab country."

All across China, more and more people are turning to Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. The numbers have been growing for years, encouraged by the personal freedoms that have slowly accompanied the country's economic reforms. Protestantism--and especially evangelicalism--appeals to many Chinese in rural areas that have been left out of China's economic miracle. Now China has at least 45 million Christians, the majority of whom are Protestant, according to Chinese academics. Western observers say the numbers are much higher. Dennis Balcombe, a preacher from California who has made hundreds of mission trips to China since the late 1970s, and Western researchers put the number at closer to 90 million.

Either way, the movement now has a momentum of its own. Centuries after Westerners flocked to the Middle Kingdom in search of souls, Chinese missionaries have taken over from their Western mentors and are proselytizing directly. And for the first time, they are making serious plans to spread the good word beyond their borders. "I wouldn't be surprised if Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world in the last 20 years," says Daniel Bays, a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan.

The religious upwelling presents a serious challenge to the Chinese Communist Party, which still allows only atheists in its ranks and has always viewed religion, especially Western-imported Christianity, as a potential source of dissent. The government forbids evangelicalism and requires Christians to worship in officially sanctioned churches, but is struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing numbers. Already there are about 6 million members of the official Roman Catholic Church and 15 million Protestants. But because of government limits, there's a severe shortage of clergy and churches. In Beijing alone, people pack the 100 existing official churches, overflowing into basements to watch sermons on closed-circuit television. Two new churches the city recently broke ground on--the plans have been in the works for six years--will hardly fill the gap, officials admit.

Meanwhile, under-ground churches are expanding with lightning speed. Some of these groups oppose all state controls. Others are willing to register, but the government won't accept them. Faced with the accelerating growth of so-called house churches, the government has cracked down hard--bulldozing many of them and increasing the number of arrests. In January the government arrested Xu Yongling, a top leader in the movement to evangelize abroad. Last June, a group of underground Christians in Guangxi province who had applied to register were summoned by the authorities to finish the final steps of the application process. They arrived with all their paperwork completed and notarized, only to be arrested on the spot and sentenced to re-education camps. The government eventually released them, but there are scores of examples of others who have been similarly duped and not as lucky.

The level of organization within China's Christian community is almost as great a concern as its size. The underground movement is largely divided into five groups that began in Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces and spread across the country, sometimes branching off in different directions or under different leaders. Each has its own head and council of nine elders, and members of the groups meet quarterly to discuss issues facing the church. In 1998, for example, they penned a letter to the country's top leaders, demanding recognition. They even regulate themselves: one member says the five bodies were instrumental in helping to curb the activities of Eastern Lightning, a Christian offshoot that the government had labeled a violent cult. "We worked really hard to get rid of this sect," says Liu Ling, an underground preacher who asked that only the name on her fake travel documents be used. "I believe our efforts were more successful than the government's."

Liu was one of China's first missionaries to strike out across the country after the end of Mao's destructive Cultural Revolution. But compared with 20 years ago, the converts come much more easily than they once did. Last year she trained more than 200 students to be missionaries in hidden seminaries in southern China. Liu still takes special precautions to evade the authorities--every three days she changes her mobile-telephone number--but schools like hers are so successful, they now have to turn some applicants away. One school in Henan province weeds out less-promising candidates after a two-month trial period and sends them to an alternative program, where they work part time in a textile factory and study religion. The seminaries always hold Bible classes, but also often arm disciples with practical lessons in composition, computers and, in some cases, Arabic.

At a meeting in March, about 60 believers gathered in a southwestern Chinese city to discuss proselytizing. The believers were keen to penetrate China's 56 minority groups. Minorities like the Muslim Uighurs are often isolated from mainstream Chinese life and face discrimination in their work and education. Of course, this makes them natural targets for a message of redemption. But preaching to them is risky for the missionaries, who are mostly Han, China's ethnic majority. "Because we speak different languages... it's not easy for us to stay among them," says Paul, one of China's top underground Christian leaders, who is under close surveillance by authorities and asked that only his Christian name be used. "It's quite easy to detect us."

But this group of Christian faithful has higher ambitions than converting Chinese minorities. They're hoping for converts around the world. In fact, Paul is part of the first wave of Chinese missionaries to scout out opportunities for proselytizing in Muslim countries. Using a pseudonym, he recently traveled to Egypt and Jordan and says he was happy to discover many people of moderate Islamic beliefs. "So in those places, we will set up factories where Arabs can come and work," he says. The factories will make real products, with the profits going to support the preachers. Paul shrugs off the risk of angering Middle Eastern governments. "We're not going to go out in the street. We'll just meet people one on one, so even if they don't agree with us, there's no harm."

He is only one disciple in the early stage of a massive crusade organized by Chinese Christian leaders worldwide. Dubbed the "Back to Jerusalem Movement," the initiative calls for Chinese Christians to spread the Gospel in every country, to every ethnic group between China and Jerusalem. The movement's Web site calls the crusade a cause Chinese Christians are "willing to die for." The idea has been percolating for decades, but Chinese Christians are only now preparing to launch it in earnest. They've held conferences in Milan and Paris, and they run six training and information distribution centers in the United States and Europe.

The movement's organizers, who include underground church leaders in China as well as Chinese living abroad, claim they sent a test group of 36 missionaries to a predominantly Buddhist country in 2000 and that they are now preparing thousands of Chinese missionaries for assignments in places such as North Africa and Central Asia. This summer they will comb the old Silk Road--the ancient trading route that spanned China and Central Asia--for locations to set up clandestine seminaries that will, in some cases, double as companies. Zhang Fuheng, one of the top leaders of the house church movement, says he has already sent 100 of his followers to overseas training centers in preparation to convert Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. Says Zhang, "Our most important goal now is spreading our message across the world."

But as Chinese Christians look abroad to save souls, there is some division about what their priorities should be at home. Two years ago, for example, four of Paul's 20 churches left his fold and joined another of the five sects. One Western missionary familiar with the split said these congregations believed Paul was not antigovernment enough. Yu Jie, a 30-year-old Christian, intellectual and activist, also worries that his country's evangelists focus too much on collecting souls and not enough on pushing for political change. Yu converted to Christianity a year ago partly because he was convinced, as are many Chinese intellectuals, that the movement could help hasten democratic reform in China, as it did in the former Soviet Union and Poland. "Every day there are human-rights violations [in China], but very few Christians are standing up and doing something," says Yu. "Christians should do more to organize peaceful protests, to encourage and mobilize others. I think this is more important than converting people. The numbers could be huge, but if they do nothing, it's meaningless."

Yu and his wife have organized a 30-member house church in Beijing; its mission is to raise the social consciousness of Christians across the country--sometimes at great risk to themselves. His members have begun work on an underground magazine that will feature articles by prominent Chinese writers, scholars and artists who have converted to Christianity--many of whom will declare their faith publicly for the first time in the inaugural issue due out before Christmas. In December, Yu plans to visit one of the nation's hotbeds of Christianity in Zhejiang province to lecture budding missionaries on the historical role of Christianity, and he's also trying to raise money for a documentary on the subject. Yu says the government taps his phone and monitors his e-mail, but the surveillance doesn't frighten him. "I have more confidence now, whereas before [I converted] I was afraid of being persecuted," Yu says. "Now that I'm a Christian, I know my faith will enable me to overcome the torture I might face in prison."

It's that kind of bravery that terrifies the Communist Party. It sees the Protestant and Catholic churches, in part, as responsible for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The party quickly crushes any movement that is a potential threat to its power, especially if it organizes people from different social or geographic backgrounds. Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi did just that when he mobilized thousands of his followers to gather near Tiananmen Square in 1999. Beijing responded by violently cracking down. Now that the Falun Gong has been virtually wiped out on the mainland, Christians are one of the biggest threats in terms of sheer numbers and organization.

A flourishing church could solve a lot of problems for China's leaders--in some places officials look the other way as churches open orphanages, elder-care homes and other badly needed services. But even if Beijing doesn't allow real religious freedom, Chinese Christians will continue to spread the word, at home and abroad.