BEIJING - Leaders of the official Protestant church defended China's policies on religious freedom last week, asserting that a record 15 million Chinese now worship in approved Protestant churches and that persecution of so-called underground Christians is rare.
At a news conference that appeared intended in part to contradict reports - like one from the State Department Sept. 5 - that religious persecution in China is on the rise, the church leaders charged that meddling by hostile foreign evangelists has caused many of the reported conflicts between Christians and the police.
They also said the claim that tens of millions of Chinese attend illegal "house churches" is exaggerated.
"Some hostile forces overseas are still reluctant to see the Chinese Protestant church become independent," said the Rev. Cao Shengjie, deputy director of the China Christian Council, one of two government-affiliated organizations that run the nondenominational Protestant church. Foreign religious groups use secret donations "to attract Chinese into illegal activities," she said, and their secret missionaries seek to "undermine the stability of the country and the running of the official church."
The news conference by four elderly church leaders on Thursday was tied to their celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement, founded to direct Protestant affairs after the Communist victory in 1949.
At midcentury, building a new church dedicated to "self-government, self-support and self-propagation" was essential, the leaders said, because the Chinese people saw missionaries as agents of Western colonialism.
"The imperialist powers used Christianity to invade China," said Luo Guanzong, chairman of the Three-Self organization. "But now we have changed the old image that Christianity is a foreign religion. We've shown that Christians can love the country and actively participate in building a socialist society."
Although Christians were severely persecuted during Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, over the past 20 years the government has allowed the gradual growth of official Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
Within the legal constraints - pastors, liturgy and church construction are subject to official controls, public proselytizing is forbidden and children may not be baptized, for example - many followers say they enjoy genuine Christian worship. On Sundays, legal churches tend to be packed.
But groups that refuse to register with the authorities have come under increased pressure, with leaders sometimes fined, detained or sent to labor camps, giving rise to charges that human rights and freedom of worship are being violated.