During a single night in 1981, Open Doors covertly delivered one million Bibles to persecuted Christians on a secluded beach in southern China. Today, the situation for Chinese Christians is very different.
In 1981, China was undergoing a transition. Chairman Mao had died a few years earlier, leaving his country with a strong communist heritage. Under Mao’s rule, churches were not allowed to meet nor could people own Bibles, and many Christians were imprisoned, tortured and even killed for their faith.
In spite of this persecution, the church in China grew rapidly, hundreds of thousands of people, and later, millions coming to faith in Christ. Now, more than 30 years later, China has changed drastically. Through exponential changes in the political, economic and social realms, China is hardly the same country as it was 30 years ago. These changes have greatly impacted three main groups of Chinese Christians.
Mainstream Chinese Churches (Han Chinese)
Many Han Chinese, the majority ethnic population in China, live in major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. In the past 30 years, Christians in large cities have gone from experiencing extreme persecution to facing comparatively little.
Young Christian adults in China today have not experienced the same kind of persecution that previous generations of Christians suffered. One youth shares, “Our pastor was imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s. He doesn’t talk about it very often, but it is difficult to believe that was happening only 30 years ago. Today, we have to take some ‘precautions’ to avoid trouble, but the government often lets us be… as long as we don’t have too large of gatherings.”
One pastor of a large house church with many regularly attending members says that he chose not to register with the Three-Self Church Movement, the Protestant state sanctioned church, because he does not want to face any restrictions from the government. Though the Three-Self Church is relatively free to say what it wants now, there can be occasional restrictions.
That is why this pastor continues to meet with his house church. He shares, “The government usually lets us meet in peace, but if local authorities feel like our activities are ‘getting out of control,’ the Chief of Police will ‘stop by for tea’ in hopes of preventing any Christian outreach.”
Another young pastor and his wife share that they have felt a great burden to answer the call to the missions field. “We are going to a Muslim country to be missionaries. The people in this country have a good relationship with China and have responded very well when other Chinese have ministered in the past. We are able to go to countries where some of our brothers and sisters in the West have difficulty getting into. It is amazing how God has matured the church of China through previous years of persecution. But now we must be self-reliant, and we must be willing to answer His call to missions.”
These Han Chinese leaders who have experienced new freedom in recent years both expressed gratitude for their brothers and sisters around the world who stood with them while they faced extreme persecution.
“We are so thankful for how our brothers and sisters around the world prayed for and supported us during some of the most extreme years of persecution,” shared one Christian leader. “Now, it is our responsibility to stand with Christians in countries where they are facing persecution like we once did.”
Uyghur and Hui Christians
Though there have been significant improvements for Han Chinese, other Chinese believers are facing extreme persecution in areas, such as Xinjiang. Christians from minority ethnic groups, such as the Uyghur and Hui groups, often Muslim Background Believers, still face a great amount of persecution.
The Xinjiang province is located in the northwestern part of China, bordering countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
In recent years, Islamic extremism has taken root in this region. Violent attacks are on the rise, including the recent slaying of innocent people by sword at subway stations. The rest of the nation has become fearful of the Uyghur because of these attacks and have largely ostracized them.
Pastor Askar* shares, that because the local government is suspicious of any religious gatherings, his church must meet in secret. “It can be difficult to do everything that Christians are called to do when we are forced to meet in secret, but we have found ways to follow God’s commands,” he said. “In the summer, we wait until midnight so nobody will see us, and then we go to the lake to baptize a new believer. But in the winter, it is too cold to do that, so I baptize new believers with a water bottle inside.” He adds that if his congregants are caught meeting for fellowship and worship, they could face several years in prison; therefore, they must exercise extreme caution.
Another Christian leader from the Hui people group in China shared that she was originally from a Muslim family (as most Hui are) and came to Christ 14 years ago. She adds, “Anyone who leaves Islam is seen as a traitor, and they are told that they have brought great shame and dishonor to their family. As a result, some Christian converts have been kidnapped or threatened with honor killings. They give up everything to follow Christ.”
A former Tibetan monk, who had studied Buddhism for over a decade, came to faith through encounters with several Christians. He now uses his knowledge of Buddhism to compare their Scriptures with the Bible, explaining to Tibetans why Buddha is unable to take away sins, and how Jesus has already done it. He shepherds a congregation of a few dozen Tibetan believers. They can only meet in very small groups, as these believers face intense persecution from other Tibetans if their faith is discovered.
“There is persecution from the Tibetan community and from the government,” he shares “That’s why we teach new believers to be careful. Don’t just overtake someone with your faith. First, stabilize yourself, ground yourself in God’s Word, and then talk to your family. It’s important to share the gospel to your family first. Why? Because if you evangelize others, they will always ask if your brothers, sisters and parents are Christians, also. If not, they don’t believe anything you say.”
Everything You Hear About China Is True
A missionary to China once observed: “Everything you hear about China is true.” China is a very large country, and what is true in one region may be untrue in a different region. Though persecution has decreased in recent years, especially for the Han Chinese, several people groups like the Hui, Uyghur and Tibetans still face great persecution from their local communities and governments.
Much has changed in China since the Project Pearl Bible delivery of 1981. As we praise God for the amazing advancements He has allowed to take place in China, and how many Han Chinese believers are developing a heart for missions, we know that there are still those who are suffering for His Name’s sake in China. Thank you for continuing to stand with these believers as China continues to change.
*Name is a pseudonym
Father, thank You for the awesome testimony of Your work in China. Thank You for the Han Chinese who experience more freedom to worship and serve You, and who are developing a heart for Christians in other countries. You have equipped them and prepared them for such a time as this when they can have great influence. Pour out Your blessing upon them as they serve You in China and elsewhere and bring much fruit to their labor. We continue to pray for Uyghur, Hui and Tibetan Christians who suffer persecution from family, community, and the local governments. Grant them wisdom and courage as they seek to spread the gospel there and provide a solid foundation from Your Word as they grow in Christ. In the name of Jesus, who is Sovereign over China and all nations, Amen.