The Chinese constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” This term is not well defined and is applied in a manner inconsistent with China’s human rights obligations regarding religious freedom. Unregistered Christian groups remain subject to discrimination, are prevented from proselytizing, and can be arrested, detained, or tortured for their beliefs. All Christian groups, sanctioned or not, remain vulnerable. 

Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in China

China, Russia, and Post-Soviet Central Asia (begins at China presentation)

Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University

Christian Demographics

Out of a population of over 1.3 billion people, most religious adherents in mainland China are either Buddhist (18.2 percent) or subscribe to “folk religions” (21.9 percent), while 52.2 percent of Chinese have no religious affiliation. Estimates of numbers of Christians in China vary considerably, but one 2010 estimate held that some 5.5 million Catholics and 23 million Protestants populated China’s offcial churches, while underground churches accounted for some 11 million Catholics and between 46 and 69 million Protestants. These numbers make Christians approximately 5.1 percent of the population. 

History of the Chinese Christian Community

Christianity in China dates back to the seventh century, but a ninth-century imperial edict banned all foreign religions, causing Christianity to all but disappear until the thirteenth century. Christianity saw a period of growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through various missions. After World War II, as the country turned to Communism, the government promoted atheism, but despite this an indigenous, Protestant movement known as the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM) arose in the 1950s. It featured a Communist Party–dictated guiding principle of independence from the West, as well as a willingness to submit to the direction of the Chinese state. The TSPM ceased to function during the Cultural Revolution, but resurged again in 1980. The TSPM is sanctioned by the Chinese government.

The Catholic Church did not fare as well under Communism because it owed its allegiance to the Holy See in Rome and had not sided with the Communists during the Chinese Revolution. Thus, the Chinese state organized the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, independent of the Vatican, and Catholics who continued to acknowledge the authority of the Roman Pope were subject to persecution.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

The Chinese constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” This term is not well defined and is applied in a manner inconsistent with China’s human rights obligations regarding religious freedom. Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican are not permitted to organize and register as legal entities, and only Protestants affiliated with official patriotic organizations, such as TSPM, may register. Moreover, unsanctioned groups may not build houses of worship or religious schools. The result has been the growth of “house-churches,” which are not officially allowed but nonetheless exist. However, unregistered Christian groups remain subject to discrimination, are prevented from proselytizing, and can be arrested, detained, or tortured for their beliefs. All Christian groups, sanctioned or not, remain vulnerable. For example, the US Committee for International Religious Freedom reported that, in 2014, at least 1,200 crosses have been forcibly removed from the rooftops of churches. Most recently, tenuously guaranteed religious freedoms have been casualties of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive attempts to cement the Communist Party of China’s control over the Chinese government through reforms of both government and Party agencies. In March 2018, after harshened Regulations on Religious Affairs took effect and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) was dissolved, the United Front Work Department, a Party agency, gained the power to regulate domestic religious activities. The month prior to this change, regional and local governmental authorities across China increased their efforts to suppress unregistered churches, with actions ranging from detaining members to destroying churches, in one case dynamiting a 50,000 member evangelical Christian church.

In September 2018 the Holy See and the Chinese government signed a Provisional Agreement which would allow the Holy See to recognize the legitimacy of certain state-appointed bishops, and consequently enable Chinese Catholics to worship in state-approved churches while remaining in union with the Holy See. In 2020, the Holy See extended this agreement until October 2022, while acknowledging positive collaboration with the Chinese government on the limited issue of episcopal appointments. However, many Chinese Catholics who worship in house churches view the agreement as a harmful compromise that could embolden increased state oppression.

Responses to Persecution

Responses to persecution in China take several forms. Some Christian leaders have been active cooperators with Communist rule, either clandestinely or openly, looking upon Communism as a progressive program of justice and the best path forward for advancing their Christian mission. Particularly in the early decades of the movement, several leaders of the TSPM were openly cooperative with Communism. Such enthusiastic embrace of the Party is rare among TSPM leaders today, however, given recent political turbulence. Leaders tend to approach Communism more cautiously.

This leads us to the second strategy, which remains common today: the reluctant accommodation of Communist authority. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) swept mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China, it became apparent to most Christians that, unless they could flee the country, they had no choice but find a way to live under Communist rule. When the party-state engineered the TSPM, most Christian leaders were initially reluctant to join, but after severe pressures and heavy-handed maneuvers by the party-state—including imprisonment, labor camps, and accusations of aiding and abetting Western imperialism—large numbers eventually signed on. These unwillingly compliant Christians have had to deal with party-state officials and TSPM enthusiasts in sophisticated ways, circumventing adversaries through pretended politeness, courtesy, and sympathy. In their efforts to continue their ministries, they strive to be, as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, “Shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”

Other Christians, unwilling to compromise, follow a third strategy, one of resistance. They refuse to join the state-sanctioned TSPM or the official Catholic Patriotic Association and instead conduct underground worship, ministry, and evangelization, fully anticipating severe consequences at the hands of the state—a response of confrontation. From the 1970s through the 1990s, house churches flourished in rural areas, in large part due to their uncompromising leaders who returned to evangelize even after harsh prison sentences, fines, and labor camps terms. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, a new type of urban house church emerged, populated by college-educated young people who were determined to stay away from the TSPM.

The Chinese Christian resistance movement has grown in recent decades. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, all churches were closed down, along with all Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques. But around 1980, the Chinese party-state found that the Catholics remained about three million strong—that is, they remained at pre-1966 levels—and that the number of Protestants had multiplied from one million before the Cultural Revolution to three million. Today, experts estimate that there could be as many as 46 to 69 million Christians in unofficial house churches and another 5.5 million in the underground Catholic Church.

Another, more moderate, confrontational response is that of Christian lawyers who take up civil and human rights cases in the courts. A small number of Christians have openly criticized the government for its repression of religion. In recent years, some TSPM church leaders have tried to use the law and existing regulations to protest blatant violations of their constitutional rights. For example, in the early 2000s, Christians under the TSPM took a lawsuit against the local CCP United Front Work Department and Religious Affairs Bureau about their prohibition of children from attending their churches’ Sunday school. Although they did not formally win the case in court, the legal challenge dissuaded the local officials. Additionally, during the cross demolition campaign in Zhejiang in 2013–2016, some TSPM churches hired legal counsel to deal with government agencies


This country profile draws on research by Dr. Fenggang Yang and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.