“Foreigners can’t worship in China. It’s against the law.”
I have heard this adamantly repeated to me countless times, not only by people in America but by foreigners who live here. Many are unfamiliar with the laws of the country regarding religious worship in China but because my sponsoring organization (The Amity Foundation) is both Chinese and Christian-founded, I am very well-informed concerning such matters.
Let me explain
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a Freedom of Religion document. It recognizes 5 religions as being legitimate: Buddhism (Chinese and Tibetan), Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism). Chinese citizens are free to worship at state-approved sites across the country, whether those be mosques, churches, temples or religious schools of instruction, such as seminaries for Christians and monasteries for Buddhists.
As for foreigners in China, read below the translated version from China’s laws regarding worship in China for people such as myself:
“Foreigners may attend religious activities at temples, mosques, churches, and other sites for religious activities. They are also permitted to preach at places of worship when invited to do so by Chinese religious bodies at or above the provincial level. Foreigners may hold religious activities attended by foreigners at sites approved by government religious affairs departments at or above the county level. They may invite Chinese clerical personnel to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals, prayers, or other religious services. They are allowed to carry religious printed text, audio-video products, and other religious articles that conform to relevant regulations when entering Chinese territory. Foreigners who conduct religious activities within China shall abide by Chinese laws and regulations. They shall not establish religious organizations, set up religious offices and sites for religious activities, run religious institutions, or recruit foreign students studying in China without authorization; nor shall they recruit followers, appoint clerical personnel from among Chinese citizens or engage in other missionary activities.”
To simplify: Foreigners who have a particular faith may worship with Chinese of the same faith and participate in religious activities at registered sites of worship. Foreigners are not permitted to convert Chinese to their particular faiths. Only Chinese are allowed to convert their own citizens to a particular religion.
From past observations, I have seen that if a foreigner does not obey the religious policies of China, he or she will be warned by local authorities to follow the outlined policies. If the foreigner continues to ignore the religious laws of the country, the individual’s visa will be revoked and he or she must leave the country. (I have never heard of a foreigner being imprisoned for breaking this law, only required to leave.)
Having said all of the above, as a Christian, I have been attending church services in China since 1991 in many different areas and cities across this Asian nation. I have done so freely, without any difficulties, and been welcomed by those in the church. I will note, however, that China is a very big country. Different regions often have different approaches to the religious laws and local authorities might exclude or be wary of foreigners attending church. My experiences have always been positive.
The Luzhou Protestant Church
Currently, I attend church in my city of Luzhou. I am always welcome to attend both the traditional service on Sunday morning and the contemporary service on Sunday evening, with our wonderful praise band, vibrant dance teams, and altar calls. In fact, I am a member of the church’s Everlasting Love Adult Choir. I have been singing on a regular basis with my Chinese church choir for 3 years. This includes participating in choir prayer times, Bible study, evening rehearsals, Sunday worship services and special events, such as our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day programs.
All of the activities mentioned take place in the Luzhou Protestant Church, built in 1913 by the Canadian Methodist missionaries with funding from the China Inland Mission. The Chinese Luzhou Christians are very proud of this history, and I even more so with my Methodist background.
The strong, religious foundation set by foreigners over 100 years ago has now been taken over by Chinese Christians who are going strong in the city of Luzhou under the leadership of 4 capable, Chengdu seminary-trained pastors.
Our senior pastors, Pastor Zhang and Liao, are a husband-wife team who have spearheaded many outreach projects, including the Gospel Kindergarten (a day care center for 170 children, ages 3-8) and the Gospel Hospital of Luzhou, both residing in church-owned buildings next to the church.
The Luzhou Gospel Hospital
The hospital, founded in 2011, is a joint venture between the Luzhou city government and the church to give medical aid to local Chinese citizens. It encompasses 3 floors. It has a public pharmacy, 100 beds, a re-habilitation room and a small surgery.
Volunteer doctors and nurses from the nearby Medical College Hospital donate their time and expertise to attend to the needs of the patients. The Gospel Hospital also has two medical vans which bring free or low-cost medical aid to outer-lying villages for those who can’t make it into the big city. The vans also provide emergency disaster relief for area victims of flooding, mudslides and earthquakes. Aside from medical personnel going in the vans, usually present are a pastor and parishioners who witness the love of Christ through the care and concern given to those they help.
The Amity Foundation, my sponsoring agency, is currently helping the church raise money for the construction of a new church building, hospital and community center, located in the new district of the city. The cost for all three is estimated at $10 million. The Luzhou city government has already designated the land to be used and given donations for the start of the project.
Christmas Eve at the Luzhou Protestant Church
Like most churches in China, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are big events. This is the time when announcements are sent out to the public concerning special performances being held which all are invited to. Churches are packed to overflowing for these special evenings, not only with Christians but by curious Chinese who want to know what is taking place.
Since a majority of Chinese don’t understand Christianity, this is the opportunity for Christians to show the public what this faith is about. Every church has a different program in place but most last 2 hours. A short, opening welcome message is usually followed by modern-day skits focusing on Christians explaining Christianity to their friends, choirs, dances, solos or duets, and re-enactments of the Christmas story or Biblical parables. It is a joyous, energetic affair, not always solemn and silent, as one from an American mid-Western background might guess.
At the Luzhou Protestant Church, which regularly holds both traditional and contemporary services, a mix between the two is usually on the Christmas Eve schedule. We explain Christianity to others through short skits, liturgical dance, pantomime to dramatic music, choir anthems and several rousing praise team, out-of-your-seats participation numbers. At the end, the church pastors and program participants gather together on stage to bless the congregation and invite all who wish to join in future church activities. Out of about 500 in attendance, both Christians and visitors, there are usually about 50 who come forward.
Because everything is in Chinese, most foreigners living in Luzhou don’t attend because they can’t understand the language or don’t even realize they are welcome to join in. I always invite the city’s foreign community through notices on WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook) and text messages but I don’t often have many who take me up on the offer. It really is a shame. Experiencing every facet of this culture is important for an overseas’ visitor, and that includes at least one visit to the Luzhou Protestant Church. What better time to do so than on Christmas Eve, when language is not necessary. It’s the spirit of the night, the participation of a shared faith or even a new faith, that is the heart of our Christmas Eve service here. No translation needed.
On that final note, from China, here’s wishing you all the happiness of the holiday season. May you find peace and joy in all you do, and many blessings for 2020.
Note: Connie Wieck is a Marshall, Illinois native She has been teaching English in China at the college level for 22 years. Her sponsoring agency in China is the Amity Foundation, a Chinese Christian-founded social-service organization located in the city of Nanjing. Amity promotes projects in China, and also abroad, which focus on social development and public welfare for those in need. Amity also helps with outreach projects initiated by Chinese Christians and Chinese churches within the country. The Amity Printing Press, located outside of Nanjing, is the largest Bible printing company in the world and provides Bibles to the Chinese Christian Community in China. It also publishes Bibles in other languages, printed on consignment and sent overseas. To learn more about Amity, go to: amityfoundation.org