May 11, 2004


Onward, Christian Soldiers: Chinese missionaries are winning souls across the Middle Kingdom—and plan to spread even farther (Sarah Schafer, 5/10/04, Newsweek International)

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.

Folk have trouble understanding the vehemence with which the question "Who lost China?" was once asked. But you can comprehend the passion once you recognize that this is the dream that was deferred.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 11, 2004 11:36 PM

I'm an atheist and even I can see that a Christian China would be a very good thing.

Posted by: Amos at May 12, 2004 6:01 AM

I'm not an atheist, and I'm simply stunned. Funny world. Over to you, Harry.

Posted by: Chris at May 12, 2004 7:47 AM


Ten bucks says Harry's opening line is that this gal knows nothing about China.

Posted by: Peter B at May 12, 2004 8:07 AM

Shows you why the Pope turns a deaf ear to all those American and European Progressive Catholics (TM) squalling for women's ordination, abortion, and homosexuality.

Europe is all but gone and America is a minority in Christendom. The big growth of the Church is in the Third World -- Africa, Asia, South America. (They say in Africa there are now more conversions to Christianity than to Islam.) There are more Anglicans in Nigeria or Uganda than in the British Isles, and their bishops are ordaining Western Anglican priests who don't like the way Mainstream Anglicanism is going.

I fully expect to see in my lifetime African and Asian missionaries sent to the pagan lands of Europe and North America. And an African or Asian Pope.

Posted by: Ken at May 12, 2004 12:22 PM

An African Pope would be very cool - actually has the post EVER been held by a non-European?

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at May 12, 2004 12:36 PM

John Barrett, Jr.: Yes, although not lately. The first pope, St. Peter, was a Jew from Galilee. St. Anicitus, who reigned in the second century, was a Phoenician, and there were several more Phoenician popes in the seventh and eighth centuries, although some of them were born in Italy to Phoenician families. St. Victor I (2d century), St. Miltiades (4th century) and St. Gelasius I (5th century) were born in Africa. But no non-Europeans that I'm aware of in the last dozen centuries or so.

Posted by: Random Lawyer at May 12, 2004 1:50 PM

Well, I take a back seat to no one in my belief that people are hungry for religious belief. Falun gong, for example.

Also, I'm one who is, I think, still fully alive to the ethos of "who lost China," having been raised on Henry Luce, who was born in China and for the rest of his life felt responsible for it.

I'd just note that, history may not teach lessons, but the last time China was almost Christianized (which was not in the mid-20th century but the mid-19th), it resulted in a civil war in which half the people died.

If I were Chinese, I don't know as how I'd look forward to a repeat.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 12, 2004 1:58 PM

Thanks for the info, Random. I could smack myself for forgetting St. Peter!

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at May 12, 2004 10:12 PM