The Communist Party has hit out at predictions in The Telegraph that China is on course to become the worldâs biggest Christian congregation, in a sign of Beijingâs deep unease at the rapid spread of Christianity within its borders.
In a recent interview with the paper, Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, said the number of Chinese Protestants could swell to around 160 million by 2025 with the total number of Christians exceeding 247 million by 2030.
That would see China move ahead of Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the worldâs biggest Christian community.
However, the prediction appears to have gone down badly in Communist Party circles, with many senior leaders fearing the impact an increasingly powerful church could have on their ability to stay in power.
Ye Xiaowen, one of the most senior members of the partyâs powerful central committee, told state media such claims were âunscientificâ and âobviously inflatedâ.
Mr Ye, the Partyâs top official for religious affairs until 2009, said: âChina advocates religious freedom and has no objection to peopleâs right to follow any religion, but it hopes they can proactively integrate into society.
âIt is completely meaningless to predict how many people might believe in Christianity in China in the future,â Mr Ye was quoted as saying by the Chinese-language Global Times.
The paper also criticised the report, claiming Prof Yangâs claims were ânot rooted in factâ and âobviously an exaggerationâ.
In an interview published in 2009, Mr Ye insisted China had abandoned a 25-year battle to âshrink religionâ. However, âreligion continues to concern usâ because of fears it could be used to âoverthrowâ the Party, he admitted.
The practice of religion and Christianity in particular has grown rapidly over the past three decades with people seeking meaning beyond communism and capitalism.
Christianity is now growing so fast that there is a âserious shortageâ of churches, Prof Yang said. âThe distance between pews in Chinese churches is narrower than between airplane economy seats.â However, state media yesterday played down the size of Chinaâs congregations. The Global Times cited a Peking University study according to which there were 26 million Protestants in China in 2012.
Academics and members of Chinaâs âhouse churchâ movement believe the true figure is closer to 80 million since most Christians are forced to worship in underground churches.
âWe multiple the official number by three,â said one house church leader whose congregations do not feature in government statistics.
Professor Yang said he had been âreluctantâ to make his projections about Christianityâs rapid growth public, fearing they could trigger âa strong reaction from the Chinese authoritiesâ.
Activists believe officials in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang are currently waging a âdemolition campaignâ against local churches they believed were growing too fast.