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Christians in Communist China
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Beijing—It's 5 o'clock on a clear, cold autumn morning in China's capital, and Zupan is ready to leave his room. At this early hour on a Sunday, dozens of his classmates wait impatiently for him outside his dorm. Before he manages to leave his building, he receives a flood of text messages, causing his phone to beep with almost every step. "Please come downstairs, we are waiting for you," reads one text from classmate Liu Xiang. Another asks, "Where are you? I beg you to come out ... It's so cold outside."

This is Zupan's Sunday morning routine. But the 25-year-old history student doesn't welcome the attention, he just wants to worship with fellow members of the Shouwang Christian Church, one of the largest unregistered churches in Beijing. Each weekend, Zupan's teachers and students, who have been specially selected among Communist Party members, wake up at the crack of dawn to keep him from practicing his new faith. With a legion of "fans" slowing him down by offering him breakfast at McDonald's or trying to physically block him, he can barely run this gauntlet and make it to the metro station on time for services. The university worries about Zupan traveling to Shouwang because of a police crackdown there last April. Shouwang Church has become a symbol of religious freedom, and the school and the government pay less attention to his daily worship elsewhere.

Fearing tighter surveillance, Zupan refuses even to discuss the secret route he takes to church. His telephone has been wiretapped by the government.

A friendly offer for breakfast at McDonald's or a casual conversation might seem like a rather benign form of religious persecution. But over the past year, Zupan has also been threatened with expulsion, physically removed from taxis and buses, and intimidated by the police. "All because I'm trying to go to church," says the slight, bespectacled student.

Zupan's journey from anonymity to campus celebrity began in 2008 when he converted to Christianity and joined the Shouwang Church, an evangelical church in Beijing, one of an increasing number of "house churches," unregistered Christian gatherings often held in private homes. According to He Guanghu, a professor of religious studies at Renmin University, "after the Cultural Revolution, house churches flourished due to long, suppressed religious needs. The name 'house church' is mostly used to distinguish their illegal status from the Three Self Church, the state-controlled Protestant church."

While China is the home of diverse and ancient religious traditions, decades of communist rule and the Cultural Revolution weakened the influence of traditional faiths such as Buddhism and Taoism, allowing Christianity to emerge for those seeking spiritual guidance. The government acknowledges 14 million Christians in China, but there are believed to be another 70 million who attend house churches, with more in the countryside than in cities like Beijing. Today, by some estimates, more people attend Sunday church services in China than in Europe. But it is by no means an easy path. Shouwang had held its main Sunday service at Laogushi restaurant, attracting as many as 400 worshippers. But in 2011, under political pressure, the restaurant canceled the contract.

A Higher Power

Zupan's personal epiphany came during his first year of university. "I was struggling to find a job and was under an enormous amount of pressure to meet my family's expectations," he says. Then, a teacher he especially admired gave him a Bible. Zupan, who had never contact with a Christian before, was initially skeptical. "But as I read the Bible and spoke to my teacher I started to hear my own inner voice," he says. "And I found something more than materialism and studies. My mind was at peace. I felt God was watching over me."

Zupan was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2009. Drawn to the support network and spirituality offered by Shouwang, he became an active member, leading believers at his school in prayer and preaching to other students. Indeed, the school was even prepared to offer him a room where he could worship if only he stayed on campus. It's the spread of uncontrolled...

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