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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

We know that China has enjoyed a sustained economic boom but it's also in the middle of a religious boom. An official survey shows that nearly one in three Chinese describe themselves as religious. Thats an astonishing figure for an officially atheist country, where religion was banned until three decades ago.

Today, we begin a series about faith in China where we examine the links between wealth and religion.

Beijing recognizes five official religions: Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and the first subject of our series - Protestantism.

NPR's Louisa Lim has the story.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

IN UNISON: Amen.

LOUISA LIM: Heads are bowed as the pastor says grace at this church hall in a rural village in eastern China, the country's Protestant heartland. Hundreds huddle around circular tables to eat lunch here. It's a government-sanctioned church, part of whats called the Three Self-Patriotic Movement.

Today, this church is marking its annual Husband and Wife Day, a celebration of faith and community. A thousand people from dozens of nearby villages pack into this church every week. Among them is Yao Hong. She believes it's patriotic to be Christian.

Ms. YAO HONG: (Through Translator) God is rising here in China. If you look at the U.S. or England, their gospel is very advanced. Their churches are rich, because God blesses them. So I pray for China.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Many believers here are older. They tell stories of how prayer cured illnesses, of how being a Christian ended beatings from husbands, of the rewards of faith.

Pastor Ni is in charge of this church. He says there's total religious freedom in China, and he characterizes relations between state and the church as extremely good.

Pastor NI: (Through Translator) The government never interferes with our internal affairs. There are no orders, no coercion. That doesn't exist and we get on well.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: About 30 miles away in a dusty country town, a group of women from another congregation pray ahead of a public performance theyve planned for today. Freedom of religion is protected in China's constitution, but proselytizing in public places is forbidden. However, the gray areas are growing ever greater, and these women are exploiting those blurred lines.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Their show on a noisy street kicks off with a folk dance. A woman in a donkey costume is being whipped by a woman dressed up as an old man. The crowd is loving it.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

LIM: Then in the next act, they're hit with Christian messages. In this traditional skit, a warring husband and wife wear paper mache masks covering their entire heads. They argue, they come to blows, then ultimately are brought back together by finding God.

The troupe's unofficial leader Wang Meizhen describes their tactics.

Ms. WANG MEIZHEN (Leader, Christian Theatrical Troupe): (Through Translator) We use traditional art to bring in the non-believers. It's difficult for them to walk away. Then we include Christian messages. We want to bring them to God.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

LIM: Not far off on a windswept hillside, an elderly caretaker gives a tour of an enormous, newly built church, complete with its own baptism pool. This shows how the spread of rural Christianity is being helped by informal networks of rich urban Christians. This church was built with funding donated by Christians from the coastal city of Wenzhou, about 500 miles away.

(Soundbite of hymn, "Amazing Grace)

LIM: Wenzhou is known as China's Jerusalem. It has more than a thousand churches, and at least 12 percent of the population is officially Christian. It's also one of the richest cities in China, where private business is booming. These two factors form a recent trend: the Christian entrepreneur, or as they're called here, the Boss Christian.

And the biggest of all the boss Christians is a man named Zheng Shengtao.

Mr. ZHENG SHENGTAO (Entrepreneur): (Through Translator)

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: For him, finding riches was intertwined with finding God. His start in life was humble: delivering goods on a three-wheeled bike. Back then, private business was still banned, and in 1983 his attempts to make money landed him in jail.

He picks up the story.

Mr. SHENGTAO: (Through Translator) There was a charge of speculation and profiteering. I hadn't thought about Jesus much before. But I started to think about him all day long. It wasn't that I believed in him. I just prayed he would get me out as soon as possible.

LIM: He did get out after 69 days, and that convinced him to become a devout Christian. Despite his rocky start, Zheng flourished after private business became acceptable.

(Soundbite of video)

LIM: This promotional video boasts of his seat on a government advisory body and his chairmanship of a local trade association. He's been ranked the 395th richest man in China, with assets estimated at more than $400 million. His consortium is called the Shenli Group, a name which translates literally as God's Power. It encompasses mining projects, real estate development and machinery.

He believes that making money is literally doing God's work.

Mr. SHENGTAO: (Through Translator) We have to be the salt of the earth. We don't bribe officials to make money or make fake products or harm the customers' interests or evade tax. We don't think the wealth belongs to us. We're just like bank clerks. It's God who gives you the career and the wealth and asks you to manage them.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Most Christians like Zheng are literally invested in the current political system. So are tolerated, welcomed even in this part of China. But the fact that the economic elite is pouring resources into religious activism could be unsettling for China's atheist leaders.

One example is this unofficial church in the Wenzhou suburbs. The steady stream of smart imported cars drops off worshipers for a prayer meeting.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The state was trying to control us, says one worshiper, who asked not to be named, so we set up our own church not to follow the government, but to follow the God of the Bible.

(Soundbite of weeping)

LIM: As the prayer meeting begins, a woman at the front of the room starts crying and praying into a microphone. Hundreds of people are kneeling on mats on the floor, weeping copiously. This is the new face of Christianity in China, not poor and rural but the up-and-coming urban and middle classes. Their material needs have been met, now they're seeking spiritual comfort.

(Soundbite of weeping)

LIM: This is clearly a charismatic gathering. It's also technically illegal, as such sects are not supposed to exist in China. In addition, this congregation's prayer leader is not officially approved, its church unregistered.

Although some leaders of bigger unofficial churches have been persecuted, the authorities largely turn a blind eye, unwilling or unable perhaps to deal with this explosion of faith. And there are now public discussions about whether gatherings such as these should be legitimized.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: In another act of defiance, youngsters sing religious songs and openly proselytize in a dusty rural village. A crowd of villagers is listening, perched on tractors and low benches, their feet swimming in a sea of mud.

In a fiery sermon, one young missionary makes oblique references to rampant materialism, corruption and the immense wealth gap between rich and poor. It's a message that hits home in this hardscrabble part of China.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through Translator) In China, a lot of so-called atheists treat money as their god, but only in God's truth can you find real freedom.

(Soundbite of people praying)

LIM: After the performance ends, a prayer of thanks. These kids are flouting the law against proselytizing, though they claim not to be aware of this law.

China's Christians are pushing back the boundaries. The authorities don't seem to know how to respond. No one even knows how many Christians there are in China today. By some estimates, there are 80, even 100 million. That would be more Christians than Communist Party members.

Prayer over, the young believers climb into a trailer pulled by a tractor. Theyre intent on saving souls one village at a time. Where once China's youth once trundled across the countryside spreading communism, now they're spreading God's word.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

NORRIS: And at npr.org, you can see a slideshow of secret churches used by some Chinese Christians and pictures of religious rites rarely seen by the outside world.

Tomorrow, in the second part of our series, China's divided Catholic communities.

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