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The parish's revival reached a crescendo last year with the opening of its new 1,500ft mega-church, reputedly the biggest in mainland China."Our old church was small and hard to find," said Ms Shi.Faced with the congregation's very public show of resistance, officials appear to have backed away from their plans, negotiating a compromise with church leaders."They do not trust the church, but they have to tolerate or accept it because the growth is there," said the church leader."By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change." China's Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom.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.Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025.
It was founded in 1886 after William Edward Soothill, a Yorkshire-born missionary and future Oxford University professor, began evangelising local communities.
It gives us great confidence," beamed Jin Hongxin, a 40-year-old visitor who was admiring the golden cross above Liushi's altar in the lead up to Holy Week.
Officially, the People's Republic of China is an atheist country but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied.
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.
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Now it is starting to send its own missionaries abroad, notably into North Korea, in search of souls.