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The size of the Christian population in China has leveled off after the dramatic increases of the 1980s and 1990s, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released this week.This finding, human rights activists and scholars told CNA, is not surprising given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts in recent years to suppress the practice of Christianity.

China had witnessed a dramatic growth in Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s when restrictions on the practice of religion that were imposed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s were relaxed.

Between 1982 and 1997, the number of Christians worshipping in registered churches more than doubled, from 6 million to 14 million, according to the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS). In comparison, the general population saw 22% growth during the same time period.

This week’s survey, conducted by academic organizations in China, found that growth come to a virtual standstill in recent years. Between 2010 and 2018 the number of adults identifying as Christian held steady at about 2% and in 2021 fell to 1%.

Pew notes, however, that because of the difficulty in conducting surveys during COVID, the 2021 numbers are not comparable with those of previous years. Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told CNA that the declining numbers of China’s Christians are “no surprise.”

“They correlate with Xi’s [Jiping’s] crackdown on Christianity, his so-called ‘Sinicization’ campaign,” she said. For the past five years, “the state has strictly banned all children from any exposure to religion, churches have been blanketed with facial recognition surveillance and linked to social credit scores.”

During that time, Bibles have been restricted and censored, Beijing has detained Christian bishops and pastors, and their sermons have been censored to “be on Xi’s ‘thought,’” Shea said.

Steven Mosher, a scholar with the Population Research Institute, told CNA that he questions the reliability of the data in the new survey since Christians in China, fearing for their safety, might refuse to respond to polls.

Nevertheless, he said, the effect of the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress the growth of Christianity cannot be underestimated. “Communist Party leader Xi Jinping made clear in a December 2021 speech that he intends to bring every religion in China — Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist — under the direct control of the CCP and make them serve its purposes,” Mosher told CNA.

“Any religion that does not teach its members to love the party and socialism is a ‘backward’ religion engaged in ‘illegal religious activities,’ Xi said, and will be stamped out. Religions should only conduct their activities in approved places of worship and must not interfere with social life or the education of the young,” he said.

He added that Catholics in particular have faced widespread persecution.

“Being a Catholic, especially, makes one suspect in the eyes of the present-day Beijing authorities. Catholics are not allowed to join the military, the Communist Party, or hold any sensitive government position, so they are already in a kind of Dhimmi status — to use a Muslim term referring to second-class status — within Chinese society,” Mosher said.

In 2018, the Vatican signed a confidential agreement with the CCP that would require the regime to consult with the Holy See about the appointment of bishops. That deal was renewed in 2020 and again in 2022.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 91, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and an outspoken advocate for religious freedom and democracy, has been a sharp critic of the agreement with Beijing, calling it a “betrayal” of China’s underground Church.

The deal has failed at its purported purpose of helping the Catholic Church in China, Mosher told CNA. “The Sino-Vatican Agreement has not helped to expand the Church in China. Rather, to this China watcher, the Sino-Vatican Agreement is being used by the CCP to accomplish the slow decapitation of the Catholic Church in China. That is certainly the goal of Xi Jinping, a brutal dictator cut from the same cloth as Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin,” Mosher said.

“Bear in mind that of the 104 CCP-defined dioceses in China, at least 36 remain without bishops. Most of the rest are headed by bishops who are rapidly approaching, if not well beyond, retirement age. The acceptance by the Vatican of one or two CCP-nominated bishops each year will not begin to offset the ongoing attrition in their ranks, much less begin to fill the dozens of empty sees,” he said.

By Zelda Caldwell

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