Christmas trees twinkle, the sweet aroma of candles fills the air in the 407-year-old Immaculate Conception Church in Beijing. More than 1,500 people, sitting or packing against the aisles, were waiting for the midnight mass. Many more people stood outside in the minus 5 degree Celsius weather, watching services on two big TV monitors.
"We have issued 4,000 tickets, but that number may double," said Ying Mulan, a nun who was handing out leaflets about the birth of Jesus at the entrance of the church.
"It's wonderful to see so many Chinese people come openly here on Christmas," said Tien Gill as he took a leaflet. Tien arrived in Beijing three weeks ago from the United States for a holiday. "Religious freedom is not empty talk here."
At the same time, Yan Zhiyuan, vice president of the Christian Three-Self Patriotic Committee was helping keep order outside the Shanghai International Chapel. "More people have come this year than in past years," he said.
According to statistics, there are more than 21 million Christian church members in China, and more than 50 million Bibles have been printed. About 600 Christian churches have been set up every year since the reform and opening-up drive in late 1970s.
An architect calling himself Silinx was meditating in a corner of the chapel while listening to sacred music. He became a church member in 2005. "I have got many close friends in the church. We can feel the affection of each other in such a big and busy city."
More than 500 people gathered into Pinganqiao Catholic Church in Chengdu to pray for the victims in the May 12 quake.
"I hope people in the quake-hit areas could spend a safe winter," said Cheng Jing, who came from Chongqing especially for the prayer service.
But not all people coming to the church are Christian. Miss Wang, a graduate student from East China Normal University in Shanghai and an atheist, has spent three Christmases in Christian churches. "I want to shake off the fatigue of study, and have a 'bapitsm' of my soul in the Christmas atmosphere," she said.
"We come to pray for the good health of our parents, and our love," smiled Sun Ke, who held his wife tightly in his arm.
Deng Zhiwei, vice chairman of the China Sociology Society said, "some foreign reports said that Chinese people become spiritual believers because they lack a sense of security, but it's social security and the opening-up of China that make it possible for so many people to come to churches."
(Xinhua News Agency December 25, 2008)