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Report Finds Christian Church Growing Rapidly in China

A government-backed study in China finds more people turning to Christianity, with the number of church members topping a record 23 million.

The study by the the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences did not say whether the figure includes only state-sanctioned churches. China is believed to have at least as many Christians who participate in unofficial so-called "underground churches."

The China News Service quoted the report saying Christians make up just 1.8 percent of China's total population but 73 percent of those who consider themselves religious. The study also found increases in other faiths including Buddhism, Islam and Taoism.

The study said growth in the church has been most dramatic in the prosperous and densely populated areas along the eastern coast and the Yangtze River. It reported an influx of young people, intellectuals and professionals.

Li Lin, who organized the study, was quoted Thursday saying almost 69 percent of Christians converted after an illness in their family, and that 70 percent of practitioners are female.

The study said there are now 55,000 churches in China, and the head of the body governing China's official churches, Fu Xianwei, chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement National Committee, said more than 50 million bibles have been printed.

China officially allows freedom of religion but requires groups to register with the government. This has created conflicts with outside authorities like the Vatican, which disagrees with the government about who has the right to appoint bishops.

Such conflicts have driven many Christians into underground, or "house" churches, where they face the threat of official harassment. Some have been imprisoned or forced to work in labor camps because of their beliefs.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.