China's on track to contain the world's largest Christian population thanks to a surge in underground house churches and state-sanction places of worship, according to the Council of Foreign Relations.
In a background document titled "Christianity in China," the CFR estimates of the number of Protestants at anywhere from 58 million to 115 million and higher — though fewer than 30 million attend officially registered churches.
The CFR reported underground house churches exist parallel to state-sanctioned Christian churches, operating outside of the guidelines of the government, and their regulation by party authorities is largely determined by local leaders.
According to the background report, the number of Chinese Protestants has grown by an average of 10 percent annually since 1979, putting China on track to have the world's largest population of Christians by 2030.
Estimates of the Catholic faithful in China, meanwhile, range between 10 to 12 million — despite the fact that the Holy See and Beijing haven't had formal diplomatic ties since 1951. According to the CFR, the two sides now are reportedly close to finalizing a deal on the appointment of Catholic bishops.
According to the CFR, social scientists are linking the rise in Christianity with that of a spiritual vacuum following decades of unbridled economic growth in China. And with a richer and better educated society and a renewed interest in religion, the Chinese Community Party philosophy loses its public traction, the CFR noted.
Protestantism "appeals to Chinese traditions of ritual and community," according to French Jesuit and China scholar Benoit Vermander, the CFR report states.
Christians in China — who are predominantly Protestant — are drawn to the religion's emphasis on egalitarianism and spiritual community within the church, adds Fenggang Yang of Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society.
It is also possible that more Chinese may choose Christianity over other faiths, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Islam or Falun Gong, because Christianity is more tolerated and is potentially a safer option in China, says Freedom House's senior research analyst for East Asia, Sarah Cook.
Still, Christians have faced growing repression in recent years — and China has ranked 10th as a country where it's most difficult and dangerous to practice Christianity, according to Open Doors, a U.S.-based Christian non-profit that tracks the persecution of Christians worldwide.
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