Xmas celebrations out in the open

08:20, December 25, 2009      

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The streets of Xitang are dotted with bars, restaurants and cafes all decorated specially for the Christmas season; Santas smile from shop windows and glistening firs stand proudly on sidewalks.

People participate in a Christmas Eve mass at the Shanghai Xujiahui Cathedral. Gao Erqiang

Only a small corner of this ancient water town in Zhejiang province remains untouched by this festive fervor - the local Protestant church.

"We will decorate the church adequately and decently on Christmas Eve," said Xia Jingzhen, a spokeswoman for the church on Tuesday. "Unlike the commercial celebrations, we focus on spiritual peace and joy."

Her comments are perhaps a sign of how seriously the growing numbers of Chinese Christians in the town and across the country take this religious festival, which despite accusations of over-commercialization has steadily increased in popularity in China over the last 30 years.

There were 70 million Protestants in China by the end of last year, one of the largest Christian populations in the world, showed research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The Beijing Catholicism Committee also said that in the capital alone the number of Catholics has risen to about 80,000 from fewer than 30,000 in the 1940s.

So are Chinese people becoming comfortable and confident about displaying their religious beliefs in public?

"In the past, we did not have a public place for fellowship groups and Sunday services. In fact, we did not even talk about our religious beliefs in public," said Xia. "We are really happy that we have a new church now. We even have our own piano and choir."

She said that the church in Xitang, a town featured in the Hollywood action film Mission Impossible 3, first opened in 1944 but was closed in the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s. It was rebuilt in 2002 and stands just five-minutes walk from the original location.

"The new church is 1,800 sq m and cost 360,000 yuan ($53,000), which included the land and construction fees. The congregation, which includes about 200 Protestants, donated half of the money for the project," said 50-year-old Xia, who was baptized 30 years ago.

Experts suggest that, although CASS studies show two-thirds of Chinese Protestants still worship at unofficial "house churches", Christmas celebration is finally returning to mainstream society 40 years after the restrictions placed on religion during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Source: China Daily
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