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The crackdown has, if anything, strengthened the resolve of overseas Christian groups to keep spreading the Gospel in China. Since Lawson's trip to Luoyang in 1998, overseas evangelists' trips have increased to an average of one a week. They claim to smuggle in as many as 10,000 Bibles at a time. Many evangelists openly compete for Chinese converts, posting tallies on websites of how many souls they've saved--a somewhat questionable estimate, since most Americans don't speak the same language as the people they profess to be converting. Religious travel agencies guide devotees through tricky visa applications and advise them to elude the police by immediately boarding a train after blanketing a town with religious material. Evangelists are taught to speak in code, referring to the Bible as "bread" and God as "the boss." "You can't be too careful," says Joe Deng, who has made some 40 trips to underground churches in China over the past decade. "One wrong move, and you could get dozens of innocent people arrested."
The evangelists' efforts have been particularly successful in China's interior provinces, which have yet to enjoy the economic boom galvanizing big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Religious groups estimate that each Bible they smuggle into China passes through the hands of 300 people. It was a sunny spring day when the word of God fluttered out a bus window and landed at Ma Xingling's feet. As he looked up at the crowded bus, the 32-year-old Chinese factory worker caught sight of a blond woman releasing Christian pamphlets into the air. Ma never saw her again, but the woman's airborne message stayed with him. Today, five months after he first read the booklet, Ma leads a dozen underground worshippers near Changsha, capital of central Hunan province. "Christianity fills my heart," he says of his illegal religious activity. "It makes the problems of today's society much more tolerable."
Despite his faith, Ma has not been immune to one of the largest social problems facing China today: corruption. In the past year, raids on house churches--worship groups set up in homes--have increased from twice a month to once a week, according to human-rights groups in Hong Kong. As long as church members have the funds to grease the palms of the police, they can often escape arrest. Ma so far has paid $350, more than six months' salary, but he's worried that the authorities will soon return. "I pray they will not come back," he says. "I pray to Jesus, and I pray to the Virgin Mary. Sometimes I even pray to that yellow-haired woman on the bus."
--By Hannah Beech/Beijing. With reporting by Edward Barnes/New York