Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church

Inside China’s Underground Churches

Believers among one of the fastest growing Christian populations in the world often attend "illegal" services.

During the Christian Holy Week in April 2017, around a hundred people, young and old, gathered to attend Palm Sunday Mass on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, in northern China. Worshippers sang hymns, held palm fronds, and took Communion ― a scene familiar to Christians the world over. But this Mass was held in the courtyard of the home of Dong Guanhua, an “underground” Catholic priest. “It was a simple service and obviously lacked the fanciness of an official Catholic Church,” photographer Kevin Frayer, who took these pictures, told FOTO. “Everything was makeshift.”

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


Father Dong (at right, in red) told the BBC in 2016 that during holidays, his family church welcomes close to 2,000 worshippers, while a nearby state-sanctioned church that promotes patriotism and the government’s version of Communist ideology sits mostly empty. (Father Dong is, in fact, a self-declared "bishop" who holds Mass without the permission of the Vatican, or Beijing.) By most estimates, worshipers like Father Dong and his followers, who refuse to let the government meddle with their faith, make up the majority of Christians in China.

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has, at least nominally, adhered to the vision of Karl Marx (who famously characterized religion as “the opium of the people”) and defined itself as an atheist country. Mao Zedong tried to eradicate religion during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, shutting down churches, mosques, and temples and forcing people to practice their faith in secret.

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


As the country gradually opened up to the rest of the world in the 1980s, its grip on religious practices loosened. Religious freedom was even written into the constitution in 1982, granting protections to “normal religious activities.” And as China’s unique brand of capitalism brought sweeping changes to every aspect of society in the following decades, millions of Chinese increasingly turned to Christianity in a search for connection and a meaning to their lives beyond money and possessions.

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


In 2011, Christians accounted for 5 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people, according to a Pew study, with Protestantism the fastest growing sect. Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, who considers Pew’s estimates “prudent,” even suggests that the number of Chinese Protestants — growing at an annual 7 percent rate — could approach 260 million by 2032. With that, and another 10 million Catholics, China is on track to surpass the United States as the nation with the largest Christian population in the world. (The number of Christians in the U.S. appears to be falling: 71 percent of Americans, roughly 225 million, identified as Christian in 2014, down from 78 percent in 2007, according to a Pew study.)

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


While Protestantism flourishes, the number of Chinese practicing Catholicism has largely stalled in the past several years ― one reason the Vatican is desperately trying to rebuild ties with Beijing and regain its legitimacy in China. Negotiations in the past have largely centered on whether the Chinese government or the Vatican has the power to appoint clergy, and recent reports suggest that the latter is willing to compromise on that question.

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


In December, the Vatican asked two underground bishops to relinquish their positions to government-appointed bishops, including one who was excommunicated by Rome. The move angered believers who long suffered oppression in China, and many are concerned that a new era of crackdowns is nearing, as the government has bulldozed churches and imposed new rules that include hefty fines for organizers of “unapproved” religious gatherings and events.

Chinese Christians Mark Holy Week At Underground Church Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


While restrictions on Christianity in China tend to ebb and flow, and authorities often turn a blind eye to underground churches as long as they don’t appear to threaten the state’s power, it's not surprising that the Chinese government is paying increasingly close attention to congregations all over the country. Today in China, the Communist Party boasts about 90 million members, or roughly 6 percent of the Chinese population. Christians, across all denominations, have likely surpassed that number by now ― and that growth shows no signs of slowing.