Protestant Christianity has been one of the fastest-growing religions in China in recent years, rising from having just three million adherents in the 1980s to as many as an estimated 100 million this year.
Christianity’s ‘explosive growth’ in China – and the official pushback
But in the officially atheist state, the rapid expansion has led to tensions with the authorities.
Only state-sanctioned churches are allowed to operate in China, but most Protestants go to unofficial “house churches,” also known as “underground” churches.
Last month, sweeping new religion regulations took effect, imposing stricter restrictions and harsher punishments on unregistered religious activities.
Here's how the regulations came about, and what they mean for religious life in China:
How Protestantism has evolved in China
Christianity is not illegal in China, but it has faced a long history of suppression and official distrust ever since missionaries began arriving with European and American merchants hundreds of years ago.
After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, traditional Protestant denominations – Anglicanism and Methodism, for example – were abolished, and the Christian communities in the country were ordered to attend government-approved churches.
Still, Protestantism has grown steadily since the 1980s, when there were only an estimated three million followers, as China undergoes a religious revival.
“In the post-Mao era, there has indeed been an explosive growth in Christianity, particularly in Protestants,” said Xi Lian, professor of Christianity at Duke University. “Its belief system has been able to compete favorably with Communist ideology.”
Although estimates on the number of Protestants in China vary, Yang Fenggang, a scholar of religion in China at Purdue University in Indiana, put the number this year at 100 million, based on the about 7% annual growth between 1949 and 2010.
Why China suppresses religion
Beijing is wary of any organized movement, for fear that it could challenge the Communist Party’s hold on power.
For decades, the Chinese government’s religious crackdown has been motivated by its militant atheism, a doctrine integral to the nationalistic and bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
“The militant atheists have prevailed in recent years,” Yang said, adding that they see religions – and Christian religions in particular – as “subversive and counter-revolutionary.”
In 2014, the government issued a national security report that described “foreign infiltration through religion” as a threat to its socialist beliefs.
How China has cracked down on worship
The Chinese government has kept close watch over churches and taken actions against those it deems unlawful.
In parts of China, it has carried out a campaign to remove crosses and steeples on top of buildings, ostensibly because they violated building codes.
It has shut down churches, and even demolished them outright.
In one such case in January, paramilitary police flattened a popular megachurch in the northern province of Shanxi, using dynamite and heavy machinery.
Under President Xi Jinping, the government's control over religion has tightened.
In a particularly bizarre episode late last year, the authorities in the southwestern province of Jiangxi instructed local Christians to replace posters of Jesus with portraits of Xi.
“The government has embarked on a pushback on Christianity, seeing it as possibly a carrier of Western, anti-Chinese forces,” Lian explained.
That said, the crackdown has not deterred some from worshipping within the confines of state regulations.
“There are indeed limits on what can be said during preaches and on religious education for children,” said Rachel Chen, a Chinese student who converted to Christianity. “But despite various constraints, Chinese people are still actively seeking spiritual meaning from religions as they become more affluent.”
What new religion regulations mean
The new regulations that went into effect in February empower lower-level officials to regulate church and religious activities.
Unauthorized groups are banned from receiving donations and posting religious information online. Offenders are subject to a large fine up to 300,000 yuan ($47,000).
While it's too early to tell the extent of enforcement of the new law, the chilling effect has already spread.
Since a draft of the law was circulated last year, many Protestants have turned to more discreet forms of worship, removing crosses from their churches and downsizing their gatherings.
And these were the officially recognized churches.
For unofficial churches, the future is more uncertain – and likely lies deeper underground.