Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Christmas finds new religion in China

CONTRAST The government is happy to let stores cash in on the festive season, but for underground churches it is one of the most risky times of the year

AP , Changsha, China

The Christmas carol Deck the Halls blares over the speakers of the warehouse store as the toddler lunges for a plastic Santa. His mother grabs him by the seat of his pants and hauls him back.

It's a classic Christmas shopping moment in the unlikely setting of central China -- though one that is becoming more common as Chinese, few of whom are Christians, adopt the holiday as a festive shopping season.

But for members of China's unofficial Christian congregations, this is a season of fear as communist authorities crack down on unauthorized worship, detaining activists and bulldozing churches.

"Everyone is scared now. This Christmas will be tougher than usual," said the organizer of an underground church in the eastern city of Hangzhou whose building was destroyed in October. The man asked not to be identified by name.

The sharp contrast between the crackdown and the Christmas festivities highlights Chinese authorities' desire to isolate religious dissenters while exploiting the holiday's commercial potential.

"The central policy of the Communist Party has never shied from good commercial opportunities," said Bob Fu, a US-based monitor of the underground Chinese church.

"They can call it `Christmas with Chinese characteristics,'" Fu said, borrowing the ruling party's language for China's interpretation of such Western concepts as socialism.

China's government allows worship only in government-monitored churches, temples and mosques. But tens of millions of believers belong to unauthorized churches, whose clergy and members are frequently harassed and detained.

Official controls on religion stem from government unease that churches could act as a rallying point for opposition that could threaten communist rule.

Communist leaders barred most religious activity following the 1949 revolution, ordering Chinese to cut ties with fellow believers abroad.

Christianity took root in China about 150 years ago, spread by missionaries accompanying European and American traders who were setting up colonial enclaves along its east coast.

Today, about 15 million Protestants and 10 million Catholics worship in the official churches. Millions more are believed to belong to the unofficial or "house" churches.

The rise of Christmas as a secular bright spot during the bleak Chinese winter has paralleled the rise of capitalist-style economic reforms.

In Shanghai, the country's commercial capital, a 21m-high Christmas tree stands on a stretch of Nanjing West Road that is dotted with boutiques for Gucci, Versace and other expensive foreign designer brands.

In an echo of American tradition, several shopping centers are advertising visits by Santa Claus. Another promises a "red-nosed clown special holiday."

Such marketing has spread inland to Changsha, an industrial center along the Yangtze river, where Christmas carols are piped through the Trust Mart discount store and ribbons, wreathes and fake snow adorn doorways.

"It's a lively atmosphere. It makes people happy and helps with business," said shop assistant Wendy Huang, wearing a red-and-white Santa Claus hat and vest.

It's not clear how much the promotions are boosting sales.

Secret too is how authorities wish to keep information about the crackdown on unregistered churches outside Hangzhou, about 150km southwest of Shanghai.

About a dozen churches have been destroyed here since the summer, along with scores of Buddhist temples and Taoist shrines, according to activists and human rights monitors.

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