China Could Become the World’s Largest Christian Country

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April 21 2014 12:15 PM

China Could Become the World’s Largest Christian Country

480004537-nuns-sing-at-the-funeral-of-the-late-head-of-the
Nuns sing at the funeral of the late head of the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai, Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, as he lies in a funeral home on March 22, 2014.

Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

China likely already has more Protestants—an estimated 58 million—than South Africa or Brazil, major centers of evangelical revival,  and 67 million Christians in all—larger than the total population of France. More people go to church on Sunday in China than in all of Europe.  But Tom Philips of the Telegraph suggests this growth is just in its early stages:   

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. “It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change….

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By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. as the largest Christian congregation in the world, Yang predicted.

(There are about 247 million Christians in the United States today.)

To a certain extent, this is just a “China is really big” story. But Christianity’s rise is nonetheless a fascinating development given the constraints it has faced in an authoritarian, officially atheist country. Christianity in the country—both Protestant and Catholic—is divided between officially sanctioned “patriotic” churches and unsanctioned underground churches, often operating out of private homes, which are often subject to crackdowns by the authorities. (The official number of Christians in China is only about 25 million, but that’s almost universally agreed to be extremely low.)

This has, not surprisingly, led to ongoing tension between the church and the Vatican, which doesn’t recognize the authority of the Beijing-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Church and has excommunicated its bishops. "Underground" Catholic churches, meanwhile, have been fiercely suppressed by the state.

Pope Francis has said he wants "friendly relations with China" and plans to visit this summer, though it’s hard to see how this fundamental dispute could be overcome unless one of these institutions radically changes its way of doing business.

For what it’s worth, the church seems to be winning the battle for hearts and minds on the Chinese Internet. Jesus is getting more love than Mao on Weibo these days. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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