Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter in China: Detention, Worship, and Song

Earlier, in "Christianity in Churches in China" I shared some of the experiences I've had in China witnessing how Christianity could blend into the China's culture.

The openness of the religious expression I shared stood in stark contrast to the news of that day -- Chinese police had detained numerous Chinese for praying publicly outside.  This led one reader to ask:
"So how have these churches even gotten building permits if religion is so tightly controlled??"
The key is that China is "OK" with religion as long as any organized practice of it occurs in government controlled Buddhist temples, churches, mosques, etc.  For example, Chinese Government insists on the power to appoint Bishops for the Catholic Church.  They want the power to be able to avoid the potential that such organizations could be used in any way against the ruling Communist Party of China.

The people who were earlier detained were part of what is called a "house church" in China -- one that isn't officially sanctioned by the Chinese Government and may gather in a variety of locations such as people's homes.  They had bought a building to serve as a church but have been blocked from occupying it.  When they were unable to use the newly purchased building they decided to pray outside.  In recent weeks, some of the worshipers have reportedly been forced out of their homes and lost their jobs due to pressure from security officials.

On Sunday members of the same church again tried to pray outside to observe Easter and the police responded as before by detaining a number of people.  There were also reports of other Easter services being repressed.

Regardless of the continued detainment of people praying in non-sanctioned manners, many other Christians in China were able to pray with no obvious disturbance.  This was made apparent to me as I passed by a church in Kunming, Yunnan during the Easter weekend.

Trinity International Church in Kunming, China

At the time, there were people outside openly passing out pamphlets and actively encouraging passerby's to come inside. [sentence edited for clarity]

First page of religious pamphlet

On Sunday when I took a look inside there was a completely full house with a number of people having to stand.

Church service with packed seats

While I am not at an expert on Easter services, what I saw during my short visit didn't seem unusual to me in any way -- except hearing some Western style hymns in Chinese.  The above photo shows one of four services that were being held on the Saturday and Sunday of Easter weekend.  During my two visits I didn't see any obvious foreigners but the 2nd service offered simultaneous translation into English through wireless earphones.

English version of guide to services

There were many things in the church that seemed familiar for a place of worship.  In fact, they even had the requisite bulletin board highlighting recent activities:

Especially after reading so much about the detentions in Beijing, the large crowds in the church made me feel like I was in a different world.  One congregant said she had absolutely no worries about the Chinese Government -- they were sanctioned and had no fears.  When I asked her about the Christians who had been detained in Beijing she claimed not to have heard the news, but her body language and sudden desire to switch to another topic suggested otherwise.  Her apparent reluctance to speak about the issue may have been related to a sense of shame.  However, it is also possible "observers" were nearby and she didn't wish to draw any unwanted attention.

The issue of religion is an example of how China can be open and free in some ways and yet so controlled and censored in other ways.  It is easy to see that China's openness has grown over the past several decades, however the recent chilling series of detentions of political activists, lawyers, and even those who wish to express themselves through religion or art causes worries there may be at least a temporary shift in direction.

I share all of this simply to point out that like many aspects of China, the issue of religion is not as black and white as many outside of Chinese perceive it to be.  This weekend, hundreds of millions of Chinese went about their lives as normal entirely unconcerned about the Easter holiday.  Millions of other Chinese celebrated Easter in official churches like ones like the one I visited or in "house" churches.  Then there were those who were forcibly restrained from peacefully observing the holiday in the manner they chose.  All of these people are a part of religion in China today.

To close, I'll share a video of several younger congregants singing a religious song early Saturday evening before a production of a play for Easter.  The lyrics of the song are simple and include phrases I'll roughly translate as "I'm truly for you, my Jesus.  I want to contribute much to you.  I really love you."  Even if you don't understand Chinese, you can probably understand the Chinese word for "Jesus" -- 耶稣 (Yesu).  The singing is not remarkable in any way except how it likely mirrors scenes in many other churches around the world.  Hopefully, it is a sign that China will continue to open so everyone can peacefully express themselves as they desire.

No comments:

Post a Comment