Religious conversions common in China


Just about anyone alive in 1991 can still recall the great jubilation that ensued when then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to “bring down the Berlin Wall” after a series of long and high-level talks with then United States President Ronald Reagan. The headlines of the historic moment filled the world's newspapers, along with images of tearful reunions of relatives and friends who had endured years of political and physical separation.

But not many people know that Gorbachev’s mother, Maria Gorbachev, made a great contribution to what her son accomplished. Not that she was in the middle of the talks between the leaders of the United States and the former Soviet Union that ended the Cold War, but she “was there,” even before her son was to become the first and only President of the Soviet Union.

Published records note the legendary president’s mother was a Christian. Like many whose hearts yearned for freedom of her country, the late Mrs. Gorbachev labored for her country through prayers. It may have been apparent that she also prayed for her son. And the freedom she longed for came indeed, with her own son Mikhail leading the fulfillment of her dreams and prayers.

A recent gathering of Filipino and Chinese journalists in the Philippines discussed how similar seemingly invisible religious activities are affecting the officially communist and atheist China. Where once the door was closed to frank discussions of Christianity, China has slowly opened to this faith whose message is one of complete freedom.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese have turned to Christianity for the salvation of their souls and have begun worship services in their homes where they gather to talk about their daily experiences in the Christian faith. Despite the challenges, thousands of house churches have mushroomed in the country in the last several years.

Promise Hsu, a journalist who formerly worked with China’s Central Television, told the international journalists that more and more people turn to Christianity in his country because they find hope in it.

He added that even some Chinese intellectuals realized economic progress is not the only vision they need to make China a real force in the world. They believed there was a higher fulfillment than the material abundance they gained through economic prosperity.

At the conference, Hsu also said even some higher Party officials have also converted to Christianity, so much so that “it’s not anything new in China anymore.”

The Chinese journalist said China will likely have the world’s largest number of Christians in the next decade, based on the rate of conversions. For one thing, he said, the Chinese government has really opened its doors to religion, though not necessarily in absolute terms.

It remains wary of foreigners attending or opening a church in the country, fearing that they may be spies. Hsu said this could still be an offshoot of the Cold War. But the journalist believes some government officials have overcome this Cold War thinking.

The international group of journalists was surprised to learn that China-based organizations are the world’s largest printers and distributors of Bibles. According to Amity Foundation, it celebrated the production of 50 million Bibles by the Amity Printing Company (APC) in 2007. Representatives of churches in China, the United Bible Societies, ecumenical partners and representatives of government departments attended the momentous event.

China has not completely reversed itself on regulating religion, of course. Hsu said that once in a while he still hears reports of Christians being questioned or even arrested for attending house churches. The charges are usually “illegal assembly or organization.”

The journalists questioned Hsu about whether “spies” attended his church and how his church treats them. The Chinese journalist said his church would always welcome spies because, after all, they are people God loves and created in his image.

Hsu believes that “the best is yet to come” for religious freedom in China. For one thing, government has sponsored some semi-official discussions or seminars with some house church members. This kind of openness is entirely new and signals a great improvement in the relationship between the church and the State.

The journalist went on to say that as more Chinese convert to Christianity, he has observed a cultural shift. Christianity's emphasis on praying for mercy and grace seems to make its adherents less inclined to blame others (including the government) for the wrongs seen and experienced, he said.

But only God, Hsu said, could accurately calculate how people's new found beliefs affect his country's culture and morality.

But Hsu maintains it’s never a “numbers game” when it comes to Christianity. Even if the entire Chinese population were to become Christians, the kingdom of God remains in heaven and not on earth, he said.

For now, Hsu is content that at least China is becoming more and more open to the freedom of religion, which was banned from its borders several years ago. Hsu has faith in a brighter future for his country that will include an expanded role and respect for religion.

If there was one Christian mother who “interceded” for freedom to prevail in the former Soviet Union, China may have an even more formidable force of faithful thousands “mediating” to bring about freedom of religion in its own backyard.