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Children gather with parish priests for a photo on the steps of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in the village of Fufengxian, in China's Shaanxi province, in late July 2013. The Catholic parish was marking its 17th anniversary in a region known for its apple groves. (CNS photo)

... China? Quite possibly, especially if current trends hold:

Officially, the People's Republic of China is an atheist country but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied.

Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao's death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world's number one economy but also its most numerous Christian nation.

"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.
"It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change."

The Telegraph article by Tom Phillips points out that the number of Protestants in China has gone from just a million in 1949 to around 60 million today, compared to 40 million Protestants in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa. "Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline." Of course, China also has over three times the population of the United States. Still, the growth is stunning: "By 2030, China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

Professor Yang states: "Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this. ... It's ironic – they didn't. They actually failed completely." As Dr. Anthony E. Clark has detailed in his three-part CWR series, "From Mao to Now", the Catholic Church in China has suffered immensely over the past hundred years, but especially so under Mao's relentless and bloody oppression:

China’s Catholic response to its new government was simple: resistance. The historical pattern for Catholics in China after Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) became the “Great Helmsman” was straightforward; Communist persecution and Catholic resistance produced decades of suffering and martyrdom. ...

Prior to the peak era of Catholic martyrdom during the 1960s, the Party initiated a wide-scale arrest of Catholic clergy and hierarchy; as St. Mark wrote in his gospel, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered.” On September 9, 1955, Shanghai’s police were dispatched to raid and arrest priests and faithful at all the city’s Catholic parishes, schools, convents, and other Church-related properties. “They arrested Bishop Gong,” writes Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni, “a number of priests and hundreds of lay Catholics.” Immediately after the wave of arrests, the Catholic newspaper overseen—and controlled—by the local government, The Courier Dove, announced that Bishop Gong was detained for spreading “anti-revolutionary rumors with evil intent; sheltering anti-revolutionary elements in the cathedral and other places,” and for “praying to God for Catholics who had been condemned by the Communists.” Any Catholic who had not denounced his loyalties to the pope, and who had not made his intentions clear to place the Party above his religion, was targeted as un-Chinese, counterrevolutionary, and unpatriotic. Bishop Gong and all other priests, nuns, and lay Catholics who did not follow this line were accused of undermining the people’s revolution under a subversive “cloak of religion.” Bishop Gong remained in prison for more than three decades; he was offered release if he denounced the pope, though he never did. ...

During the “10 year catastrophe,” as the Cultural Revolution is commonly called in China, Catholic churches were desecrated, destroyed, or seized by the government for secular use. During that time Beijing’s Catholic churches were all emptied and reused: North Church was used as a middle school; South Church was a processing factory; and West Church was a warehouse for Chinese herbs.

A 2010 International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department reported:

According to SARA, there are more than 5.3 million Catholics worshipping in sites registered by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong estimated there are 12 million Catholics in the country. Official sources reported that the CPA has more than 70 bishops, nearly 3,000 priests and nuns, 6,000 churches and meeting places, and 12 seminaries. Of the 97 dioceses in the country, 40 reportedly did not have an officiating bishop in 2007, and more than 30 bishops were over 80 years of age.

Read Dr. Clark's "From Mao to Now" series:

China’s Modern Martyrs: From Mao to Now (Part 1) (June 13, 2013)
China's Modern Martyrs: From Mao to Now (Part 2) (September 13, 2013)
China’s Modern Martyrs: From Mao to Now (Part 3) (March 25, 2014) 

 
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Carl E. Olson editor@catholicworldreport.com

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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