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Christianity: Expansion of Christian Church in the Birthplace of Confucius Creates Controversy in China

Confucius’s hometown, Qufu, knows how to market its most famous native son. Visitors to the city in eastern China’s Shandong province can savor Confucian cuisine, worship at a Confucius temple and follow the family tree of the Kong clan, which claims an unbroken lineage going back some 80 generations to the Great Sage himself.

The tourist boom has only intensified as China’s Communist leadership embraces homegrown traditions once derided as feudal relics by the party’s revolutionary elders.

Now, the presence of a Christian church near Confucius central is sparking debate as to whether the ancient philosopher—or, more accurately, his descendants—can handle an influx of Western spirituality in a nation yearning for fulfillment. In an online article published late this month, a prominent Confucian scholar protested the expansion of an existing church less than two miles from Qufu’s main Confucian temple and kickstarted a campaign against it. Such a church “towering over” the Confucian sanctuary, wrote Zeng Zhenyu, would stir up “intense controversy.” Sure enough, a torrent of digital discourse has ensued in China, with scholars and laymen alike parsing the ancient ideology’s stance towards a diversity of faiths.

“Qufu in China is like Jerusalem and Mecca,” Zeng, a professor at Shandong University’s Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies, tells TIME. “It’s the Chinese people’s spiritual home.” Christian churches, he believes, should be banned from Confucius’s birthplace. “You can build churches in other places,” he says. “But you can’t build them in Qufu, an iconic and holy spiritual place for the Chinese people.” (An ardent Confucian, Zeng also happens to be a member of Shandong Province’s communist elite.)

From the beginning of the People’s Republic through the madness of the Cultural Revolution, communist cadres tried to excise religion from Chinese society, destroying places of worship—Confucian temples included—and forcing the faithful to pray in secret. But a loosening of personal freedom in recent years has led to a remarkable religious revival. Indigenous philosophies like Confucianism and Taoism have gained new adherents, while Buddhism, long practiced in China, has also surged. Ancestor worship has returned, with an increasing number of families placing altars in their homes. Even in the nation’s far northwest, ethnic minorities are exploring new strains of Islam, even as the state discourages overt symbols of the faith.

The fastest growing religion in China is believed to be Christianity, which encompasses everything from congregations in state-sanctioned churches to millennial worshippers who believe that the second coming of Jesus is a Chinese woman. Some academics estimate that a nation helmed by an officially atheist party will be home to the world’s largest Christian flock within a generation. The faith’s rapid expansion has catalyzed an official crackdown, with mega-churches torn down and pastors of house churches jailed. Unorthodox Christian offshoots—labeled cults by the authorities—have been particular targets.

In some ways, the anti-Christian crusade shares roots with the government’s brutal crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation exercises whose rapid growth in the late 1990s startled the authorities. Any force that mobilizes and unifies so many people could be viewed as a threat to the Communist Party. But Christianity’s foreign antecedents make it even more of a problem religion in China at a time when President Xi Jinping has intensified a campaign against “pernicious” Western influences. In 2014, Chinese authorities announced that they would create a “Chinese Christian Theology [that] should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”

Read more: Expansion of Christian Church in the Birthplace of Confucius Creates Controversy in China | TIME

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