Rev. C. has nearly finished his latest book, a compilation of daily devotions for pastors in China. To get his manuscript from Hong Kong into the hands of his students on the Chinese mainland he’ll have to — well, for his safety that can’t be published. Neither can his name, since he agreed to speak to TIME on condition of anonymity. So let’s just say this slight and soft-spoken Protestant has spent years giving Chinese authorities the slip to deliver his spiritual message to Chinese Christians.
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Rev. C. is convinced that Christianity alone can shake the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) indomitable grip. He’s willing to go jail for this conviction. In fact, he already has.
“It’s a blessing to go to prison,” he says, “to suffer for Jesus.”
He’s not alone. While Hong Kong’s pastors are not allowed to proselytize, sermonize or establish churches in mainland China without official permission, many defy these prohibitions to cultivate a network of underground “house churches” in homes and workplaces.
Hong Kong has historically served as the springboard for evangelizing on the mainland. But as President Xi Jinping kicks off a renewed crackdown to bring Christianity under state control by instituting new religious regulations, pastors in Hong Kong — since 1997 a semi-autonomous Chinese territory — are finding themselves in the crosshairs.
“The Communist Party of China is afraid of this thing. They want to control the Christians,” says Rev. C.
Christianity, he says, has grown too big in the eyes of Beijing, which has historic reason to fear the politicization of religion.
One hundred and sixty-eight years after Christian-inspired rebels nearly brought China’s Qing Dynasty to its knees in the Taiping Rebellion, communist China looks set to host the largest population of Christians in the world by 2030 — a development that is no small source of anxiety for the officially atheist country’s authoritarian leaders.
Proselytizing may be forbidden on the mainland, but step off Hong Kong’s iconic Star Ferry and into the audio and visual assault of ticket touts, digital billboards, souvenir hawkers and street acrobats and you’ll find Christians come to spread the gospel. As selfie-stick wielding masses jostle in front of the city’s harbor and glass skyline, leaflets attesting to Jesus’ love and eternal redemption are pressed into the hands of mainland tourists.
Hong Kong, with its greater freedoms and religious liberties, has played a vital role in oxygenating the growth of Christianity on the mainland.
This article continues at [Time] Guerrillas for God: How Hong Kong’s Pastors Are Delivering the Message to China’s Christians