Dr Carey will find his hands are tied in China

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, arrives in China tomorrow, he should be careful that the religious books and materials in his luggage are only for his personal use. Under Chinese law he is banned from converting anyone, conducting missionary activities among the Chinese, or establishing any religious organisations.

And he should not indulge in any private prayer meetings with other foreigners in his hotel room, unless that temporary place of worship has been approved beforehand by the religious affairs bodies of the People's Government.

Such are the edicts included in Order No 144 from the State Council, passed earlier this year, to clamp down on religious activities by foreigners in China, particularly by underground missionaries. But the Archbishop will be allowed to attend religious services in China's official churches.

'Friendly contacts' with his religious counterparts are protected and, when invited, Dr Carey is permitted to lecture on scripture and give sermons at official religious places in China. China's leaders will also reassure him that, contrary to well-documented evidence, there are no religious prisoners of conscience in China.

In his 12-day tour of China, the Archbishop will preach once in a rural church in Sichuan province, and once in Peking's largest Protestant place of worship, Chongwenmen Church. He will be kept on a tight leash by his hosts, the official China Christian Council (CCC), but will not be disappointed at the enthusiasm with which Christianity is spreading.

After the Cultural Revolution, religion in China was outlawed, churches were closed and Bibles burned. Legal Protestant worship did not start again until Easter 1979. Since the two visits of Archbishop Runcie in the early Eighties, Christianity has boomed. The government admits that, with 10 million Chinese copies of the Bible printed in the past 10 years, its distribution is second only to the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung

The official Protestant church has more than 7 million members and there are more than 8,000 Protestant churches. Over the past decade, China has experienced a rapid growth in unofficial churches, often referred to as 'house churches', because their members gather in private homes. Including these believers, the total number of Protestants in China is estimated at up to 20 million. Official and unofficial Catholics probably number another 12 million.

It is the strength of the unofficial churches that most worries the government. State Council Order No 145 banned underground 'house churches' and decreed that places of worship must be registered. Religious activity undermining 'national unity' or threatening social stability was illegal.

The potential for China's religious groups - Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, Buddhist and Taoist - to thrive outside the state-sanctioned religious institutions has led to the crackdown. Peking is well aware of the role of the churches in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and it intends to keep religion firmly under state control.

Repression of unofficial churches is, therefore, fierce. The Chinese Church Research Centre (CCRC) in Hong Kong has documented dozens of cases this year of 'house churches' being broken up by the Public Security Bureau. Human Rights Watch/Asia has recently detailed more than 20 cases of Protestant ministers and believers who died in prison or are in detention.

But Dr Carey, who called off a visit to Sudan earlier this year on the grounds that it would be controlled by the government, is likely to receive short shrift if he inquires about such incidents.