- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

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 — one that is becoming more common as Chinese, few of whom are Christians, adopt the holiday as a festive time to shop.

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 spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The contrast between the crackdown and the Christmas celebrations highlights the 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 U.S.-based monitor of the underground Chinese church.

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

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

Christianity took root in China about 150 years ago, spread by missionaries accompanying European and American traders who set up colonial enclaves along its east coast. Communist leaders barred most religious activity after the 1949 revolution, ordering Chinese to cut ties with fellow believers abroad.

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 70-foot-high Christmas tree stands on a stretch of tony Nanjing West Road that is dotted with boutiques for Gucci, Versace and other designer brands.

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

But commercialism seemed far away at Shanghai’s imposing Cathedral of St. Ignatius, part of the officially authorized Roman Catholic Church.

Parishioners follow the Chinese-language Mass on big-screen televisions, and the only ornaments are in a Nativity scene. Christmas Day services are so popular that the church distributes tickets to limit the number of worshippers.

“We don’t pay any attention to the rest of those things,” said Li Ting, a middle-aged parishioner. “We just want to carry out our religion and celebrate this special time of year.”

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