Leaders of China's Protestants said that the Church is experiencing rapid growth thanks to the central government's respect for religious freedom as a legal right.
Congregations at Protestant churches across China are increasing annually by 500,000 to 600,000, with the number of worshippers surpassing 16 million gathering in more than 50,000 churches and other places of worship, said Deng Fucun, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China.
He revealed the figure at a press conference held to mark the ending of the five-day "Exhibition of Bible Ministry," staged by mainland churches in Hong Kong. A banquet will also be hosted this evening by Bishop Ding Guangxun, head of China's Protestant community, in honor of the event.
The highlight of the exhibition was a copy of the "Imperial Edition of the New Testament" printed from the same plate used in printing the one presented in 1894 to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Dowager Empress Cixi.
This rare copy of the Bible was auctioned during the exhibition, the result of which will be announced at this evening's banquet, with the funds raised being donated to the Chinese University of Hong Kong's SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) research program.
Jointly hosted by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China and the China Christian Council, the exhibition aimed to show Hong Kong people the development of religious activity on the mainland.
Cao Shengjie, president of the China Christian Council, pointed out that the rights of the Church and its followers are now protected by law. "We are talking about 'the rule of law' now. Everything, including the Church's relationship with the State and society, are placed under laws and regulations. This is conducive to the protection of the legal rights and interests of the Church and Protestants," she stressed.
Today, the central government pays great attention to views of the Church when formulating religious policies, she said.
Cao also pointed out that the Chinese people did not trust Protestantism because it was associated with colonialism and imperialism in the past. That was the reason why Protestant churches had to launch a patriotic movement through self-management, self-support and self-propagation in order to remove the barrier between them and the people.
The Chinese Government has also come to realize that religions are not a short-lived phenomenon, Cao said.
Describing the development of Protestantism in New China, Deng underlined the shift in direction.
In the first 10 years after China started its opening and reform in the late 1970s, mainland churches focused mostly on "hardware" reopening old church buildings and building new ones.
Since the end of that first decade, however, they have switched the emphasis to the development of "software." The new focus is to instill Chinese characteristics into Protestantism on the mainland, Deng said.
"The idea is to allow China's Protestants to interpret the Bible according to the situation on the mainland so that they can better understand God's will for Chinese churches," Deng explained.
Chinese churches have also made more efforts in providing social services, such as running homes for the aged, free clinics and orphanages.
In view of the surge of the number of followers, they are also trying to train more clergy, currently numbering just 2,000, and to give formal training to tens of thousands of lay clergy serving in mainland churches, Deng said.
Talking about the future of Chinese churches, Cao said that they must improve their relations with society, lift their social status by enhancing the quality of their followers, and step up exchanges with foreign churches and religious groups.
She also predicted that there will be more exchanges between mainland and Hong Kong churches and more mainland theological students will go to the special administrative region for training.
(China Daily August 10, 2004)