China Bible publisher prints 125 millionth copy

Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
A machine pulls in the first page of 'The Bible of the Woman' into the production line.
Mauricio Lima | AFP | Getty Images

The world's biggest Bible factory has just published its 125 millionth copy of the good book – in officially atheist China.

Since the factory first opened in 1987 it has produced 65.7 million copies in 10 Chinese languages for domestic believers, as well as 59.3 million Bibles published in 90 other languages that have been exported to 70 different countries.

The factory in the southern city of Nanjing is operated by the Amity Foundation, a Chinese government-sanctioned Protestant charity, in a joint venture with United Bible Societies.

According to official figures, fewer than 30 million people in China are Christian but more credible independent estimates put the number of Catholics and Protestants in the country at about 100 million, more than the 86.7 million members of the Chinese Communist party.

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Buddhism, which arrived in China from India not long after Jesus died, remains China's dominant religion.

But Christianity, particularly the Protestant variety, is the country's fastest-growing religion and many experts believe China will have the world's largest Christian population within the next 15 years.

"As China opened up to the world [starting in the early 1980s] most people were focused on improving their basic living level, getting clothing and enough to eat, as everyone was poor," says Qiu Zhonghui, chairman of the Amity Bible Printing Company. "Once people reach a certain living standard they start looking for spiritual fulfillment and that's why we see so much demand for Christianity in China – the meaning of life becomes important once you have enough money to survive."

The Amity Foundation is China's biggest faith-based NGO and uses profits from its printing operations and donations to do charity work promoting education, social services, environmental protection, health and rural development.

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After trying for decades to wipe out religion following the 1949 revolution, the Communist party has tolerated Christianity and other faiths since the early 1980s.

Chinese Christians are supposed to attend churches and congregations established by the"non-denominational" Protestant "Three Selfs Patriotic Movement" or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which does not recognize the Pope or maintain ties with the Vatican.

But tens of millions of Chinese faithful attend underground "house churches" that the government regards as illegal.

In recent months the government has launched a harsh crackdown on Christian groups in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, which has some of the highest concentrations of believers in the country.

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China's Communist leaders are deeply suspicious of this "foreign" religion, with its deep ties to an earlier era of gunboats and opium, and are keen to rein in its rapid growth.

The Amity Foundation's main customer is the government-sanctioned China Christian Council, which subsidizes and distributes Bibles throughout the country.

"Even today, some foreigners and overseas church groups still think China does not allow Bibles and some churches in the west still raise funds to smuggle Bibles into the country," Mr Qiu said. "They don't realize those bibles are probably made herein our factory in China."