China's Communists Get Religion

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BEIJING, China -- After returning from a recent trip to Beijing, former president Jimmy Carter said that there are "10,000 new Christians registering everyday" in China.

Many experts believe Christianity in China is thriving. The Chinese Communist Party, which is officially atheist, is slowly recognizing the role that Christianity and other religions can play in the modernization of China.

Click the player to watch the report from CBN News Senior Reporter George Thomas followed by Pat Robertson's comments on Christianity's rise in China.

When China's Communist Party members met recently at the National Congress in Beijing, President Hu Jintao did something that had never been done before. He added the word "religion" to the Communist Party constitution.

President Hu called the move an historic moment and challenged the party to view religion as a source of economic and social stability.

"I don't think the foreign missionaries who served in China in the old days could have imaged that such a thing could happen," said Zhao Xiao, a top Chinese economist.

Zhao was watching the political proceedings that day from his office on the outskirts of Beijing.

"The window in China is opening more and more," said Zhao. "Yes, the economy is the big story, but the other story is that we're also seeing a moral and religious revival and the government recognizes this."

A Communist Finds Jesus

In 2002, Zhao went on assignment to the United States to discover the secret of America's economic success. What he found changed his life forever.

"After my trip I wrote an essay entitled, Market Economies with Churches and Market Economies without Churches," he explained.  "I discovered that Christianity was the reason for America's success."

Zhao was an atheist and a former Communist Party official when he wrote the paper. He later converted to Christianity after reading the Bible. His essay is one of the most widely read articles on economic reform.

"I meet people in the upper echelons of government and I tell them that China will prosper and be a blessing to the world if it embraces the message of the cross," Zhao said.

Building A Harmonious Society

And there's evidence that the government is taking a closer look at how Christianity and other religions can create what party officials call a more "harmonious society."

"So for example, the government knows that Christianity is not a threat to China,"said Yu Xinli, who pastor's one of the largest government-sanctioned churches in Beijing. "They know that Christians are law-abiding citizens and can be good role models for society."

It's a far cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution when churches, temples and mosques were burned down by authorities. Christians and pastors were routinely arrested and labeled counter revolutionaries.

"The Chinese government had one goal in mind then: destroy all religions," Zhao said.

Religious Revival

Decades later, Chinese government data and international surveys report millions of Chinese people are flocking to religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam.

"We found that as many as one in two of the Chinese people consider religion important in their lives," said Brian Grim, who is documenting the rise of spirituality in China.

And the religious appeal stretches across all segments of society, including members of the political class.

"We found that among various occupational groups surveyed in China, who expressed an interest in learning more about religion through media, the Communist Party and government employees expressed the greatest interest," Grim said.

Years of chasing prosperity and profitability have left many Chinese people here searching for more.

"People's focus is starting to change and they are looking for the intangible things to satisfy their own, for the requirement of their soul, after they satisfy the requirement of their body," said Benny Yang, who writes frequently about Christianity in China.

Christianity Explodes

Today, freedom of religion is guaranteed under China's constitution which allows millions of Chinese believers to worship at state-approved churches, mosques and temples.

But it's Christianity that's experiencing the most dramatic growth, especially in the unregistered, so-called underground churches.

Unofficial figures put the number of Chinese Christians at around 130,000,000 people.

"There seems to be a government recognition that Christianity is growing and they are not taking steps to try and stamp it out," Grim said.

Perhaps. But let's be clear: the government still maintains a tight grip on religion.

Voice of the Martyrs' Todd Nettleton monitors religious abuses in China. He says the old Communist tactics of torture, arrests, imprisonment and beatings are still practiced, especially against Christians who are not registered with the government.

City On A Hill

Still, he's encouraged by the government attempts to understand people of faith.

"Is it a sign that all is good and wonderful with the Chinese church? No. The issue is still control but it is good that at least the Communist Party is recognizing that religion has a role to play in Chinese society, I think that is a positive development," Nettleton said.

And in another potential sign of government outreach, a London newspaper reports that Chinese officials recently held secret talks about the explosive growth of Christianity with leaders of the underground church.

A small step that Zhao and others hope will bring greater recognition for the positive role that Christians play in China.

"God wants us to be good examples so that China, like America, can one day be a city on a hill that shines the love of Christ for all to see. That's my prayer for China," Zhao said.

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George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Senior Reporter

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