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Now it is starting to send its own missionaries abroad, notably into North Korea, in search of souls."We want to help and it is easier for us than for British, South Korean or American missionaries," said one underground church leader in north China who asked not to be named.Ms Shi, Liushi's preacher, who is careful to describe her church as "patriotic", said: "We have two motivations: one is our gospel mission and the other is serving society.Christianity can also play a role in maintaining peace and stability in society.Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025.That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.But by the late 1950s, as the region was engulfed by Mao's violent anti-Christian campaigns, it was forced to close.Liushi remained shut throughout the decade of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, as places of worship were destroyed across the country.
In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Among China's Protestants are also many millions who worship at illegal underground "house churches", which hold unsupervised services – often in people's homes – in an attempt to evade the prying eyes of the Communist Party.
Such churches are mostly behind China's embryonic missionary movement – a reversal of roles after the country was for centuries the target of foreign missionaries.
Without God, people can do as they please." Yet others within China's leadership worry about how the religious landscape might shape its political future, and its possible impact on the Communist Party's grip on power, despite the clause in the country's 1982 constitution that guarantees citizens the right to engage in "normal religious activities".
As a result, a close watch is still kept on churchgoers, and preachers are routinely monitored to ensure their sermons do not diverge from what the Party considers acceptable.Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao's death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution.