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Missing missionary: Ma Daqin, Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, has not been seen since he declared he was leaving the officially approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association

While church attendance continues to fall in the West and Christians are being driven out of the Middle East under Islamist pressure, China is moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think-tank, estimated that there were 67 million Chinese Christians, about 5 per cent of the total population. Of these, 58 million were Protestant and nine million Catholic. Their number exceeds that of members of the Communist Party (CCP). 

A comparison with the situation just before the Communist Revolution — and even more so with that at the end of the Cultural Revolution — reveals the magnitude of change. In 1949 there were about three million Catholics and nearly one million Protestants. By Mao's death in 1976 religion in China, including Christianity, appeared to have been snuffed out. 

The rise in the number of Protestants, many of them Pentecostals, has been described as the greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is even talk that by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians could outnumber those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth. The emergence of the Middle Kingdom as the second largest global economy is not the only story of explosive growth since Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the Maoists.

Common to both has been the desire of the CCP to retain ultimate control. In material terms that has led to crony capitalism characterised by a widening gap between rich and poor. In the spiritual sphere it has split believers between those belonging to churches registered with the state and those which are not. It is the second category which the government targets.

Life became tougher for dissidents of whatever stripe under the decade-long rule of Hu Jintao. Taking the last few years alone, remember the empty chair in Oslo which should have been occupied by the imprisoned pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize; or the arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei the following year. Both cases, deeply damaging to China's image overseas, betrayed a heightened nervousness among its leaders.

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