The Archbishop of Canterbury is considering a landmark visit to China amid signs that the communist economic superpower is on course to become world’s “most Christian” country within a generation.
China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming extended the invitation during a meeting with the Most Rev Justin Welby and his wife Caroline at Lambeth Palace last month.
Despite decades of repression in the officially atheist country, Christianity has seen spectacular growth there in recent years.
If it continues at the recent pace, the number of believers in China is expected to overtake that of the US within 15 years and then outstrip those in countries such as Mexico and Brazil soon thereafter.
But the prospect of a visit at the behest of the communist authorities, just months after claims of a new crackdown on some strands of Christianity, would place the Archbishop on a diplomatic tightrope.
Although China publicly espouses religious freedom, Christians are only officially meant to attend state registered churches, including both a “patriotic” brand of Catholicism, which answers to the Communist party and is not directly linked to the Vatican, and two larger protestant umbrella groups.
But much of the most dramatic growth in recent years is believed to have taken place within a network of effectively underground house churches without official recognition or control.
Chinese officials in the UK are said to be enthusiastic about the prospect of the Archbishop, the leader of third biggest Christian community in the world, visiting the country.
The Chinese Embassy in London underlined the significance of a possible visit by taking the step of announcing on its website that the Archbishop had been invited, even though no official offer has been extended.
A notice on the website pointedly praises relations between the Church of England and the two state-registered protestant groups, the China Christian Council and National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
It adds that Archbishop Welby had been invited “to witness the harmonious coexistence of different religions and ethnic groups” in China.
SOURCE: John Bingham