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Religion in China: Believers, Clergy, and Places of Worship

Religion

Believers (millions)

Clergy (thousands)

Places of Worship

Buddhism

100

200

20,000

Islam

20

40

30,000

Taoism

n.a.

25

1,500

Protestantism

16

18

55,000

Catholicism

5

4

4,600

Source:  China Daily; Chinese Foreign Ministry, 1997.

The table above gives the latest available official estimates on religion in China.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Maoist radicals had demolished many ancient temples, abolishing parts of China's cultural heritage. In the mid-1990s, however, the communist state implemented large-scale reconstruction programs for religious sites, trying to rebuilt some of the lost treasures. The effort was partly motivated by the insight that ancient temples, monasteries, and burial sites could be used by the growing tourist industry. In recent years, however, these places of worship have again become centers of spiritual and social life in China - as everyone can see in the hugely growing crowds of believers that are attracted during religious festivals.

Communist party officials see the surge of religious activities in China with mixed feelings. Especially in rural areas, religious institutions have become important providers of education and social services. When the central government reduced farmers' tax burdens a few years ago, it also depleted local governments of vital financial resources. As local politicians struggle to finance infrastructure, education and health services, they have began to appreciate the benefits temples and other religious institutions can provide to society. During religious festivals it is not uncommon that temples attract hundred-thousands of worshipers. Feeding and housing these masses often provides a much appreciated contribution to the local economy - not to speak about the growing industry that provides religious objects and souvenirs.

The revival of spiritual life in China has many forms. It includes ancient folk beliefs and ancestor worship, as well as the mainstream religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. Most remarkable is the strong increase of Christianity and Islam in China - trends that are observed by the government with great attention and concern. According to atheist communist ideology, religion is "opium for the masses" (as Karl Marx said). In that respect, the resurging religious activities my not be unwelcome to China's ruling class. It my dampen some of the explosive social unrest that had been observed among the (rural) losers of modernization. As long as religious activities do not challenge the Party's leadership they may be tolerated or even encouraged. However, when folk religion, superstition and modern religious cults begin to undermine the Party's authority, the government has responded with utmost determination to suppress these activities - as in the case of the Falun Gong movement. In Xinjiang, the most western province of China, the government is concerned that the predominant Muslim population my become attracted to religious fundamentalists who might incite ethnic separatism.

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This data section was updated on 18 December 2011

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved.

china-profile.com - 18 April 2012