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Revival and rapid church growth have characterised China’s churches since the 1990s. About 130 million Chinese are Christians, most of whom worship in illegal house churches.

Only about 30 million are affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) which, as the only legal church, is controlled by the communist government. Despite continual pressure and oppression from the government, house church leaders refuse to compromise the Gospel by joining government-controlled churches.

In the early 2000s, numerous unregistered churches enjoyed limited freedom from government intrusion and harassment despite their illegal status. However, in recent years restrictive religious regulations and persecution have increased significantly. Hundreds of churches have been forced to close and pastors and church members have been arrested or detained.

The government has installed more than 170 million facial recognition cameras, many in or near churches, to identify those who attend worship services. Authorities pressure Christian parents by refusing their children or grandchildren an education. It is illegal to disciple anyone under 18. Christians are being charged with participating in cults or with other spurious accusations, such as “bad business practices” or “intent to undermine the state”.

Due to decades of government oppression, few Chinese Christians have their own Bible or access to discipleship literature.

Those living in rural areas have little access to Bibles and usually cannot afford them even when they are available. The Bibles that VOM and other frontier mission organisations distribute each year have only begun to meet the massive need.

A NEW ERA OF OPPRESSION

In the past five years, the communist government has tried various ways to clear away any trace of Christianity from Chinese society. In 2018, all Bibles disappeared from all online shops. In 2019, all Bible Apps for smartphones were withdrawn from app stores. In 2020, all Christian books disappeared from online shops, including books published by TSPM. In 2021, all Christian gatherings became illegal, to adhere to COVID-19 regulations.

As of 2022, the communist government must approve any information regarding religion posted online, including social media posts, religious videos or real-time online religious gatherings.

Anyone who posts or shares words, images or videos of a religious nature without government authorisation faces swift consequences. Under the new regulations, internet service providers are required to shut down internet service to Christians, churches or organisations that share religious messages without permission.

Hard copy Bibles remain a valuable way to encourage and strengthen the Chinese church. Each year VOM Australia funds Bible projects in China. Both standard Bibles and large print Bibles for those with poor eyesight are distributed. The Bibles are secretly printed within China, then sent to various churches for distribution.

HISTORY REPEATING

Sister Li was born into a Christian family in 1950. Her parents were devoted preachers in the local church, and she remembers attending church with them as a girl.

When Chairman Mao ushered in the Cultural Revolution in 1966, all the churches were closed, and her parents were arrested and imprisoned. Bibles and Christian books were burned by the Red Guards. Li managed to hold on to a small New Testament, which she hid in a pocket of her clothing. Just in case it was seen, she covered it with a red plastic dust jacket of Mao’s sayings. This New Testament was her only link to the faith of her parents during the entire time of the Cultural Revolution.

In May 1968, Mao launched the Down to the Countryside Movement, and Li was forced to go to Inner Mongolia to work on a farm, where she remained for 12 years. She kept the Bible with her always, “It gave me strength and warmth during that difficult time. I read the sweet and beautiful words of the Lord Jesus as the other workers slept. Sometimes, I couldn’t help singing praises to Him in a very low voice.”

Li’s fellow worker and room-mate Mei, was singled out for particularly poor treatment because of her class origin (kulak – a wealthy ‘peasant’). She and Li became close over time. Mei noticed that Li remained in good spirits despite the circumstances. Little by little, Li shared the reason for her peace with Mei. Eventually, she started to read the New Testament to her. Mei was moved by the powerful and merciful words it contained and responded with her own faith.

Upon Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution ended and the country began to open. Li added, “We thought it would never come back again, but in 2012, once Chairman Xi came to power, we saw more and more evidence that the Chinese Communist Party never changes. The situation for the church is becoming worse.”

Li and Mei both reside in Inner Mongolia and remain close to this day. In 2021, they both received a large print Bible provided by one of VOM Australia’s frontline workers.

“We believe it is He, our Lord who sent you from a far distance to bring these Bibles to us. This big letter Bible is exactly what we needed. We want to say praises to our Lord, He is at work, and He cares for us.”