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By 2030, China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted. He thought he had accomplished this," Prof Yang said. They actually failed completely." Like many Chinese churches, the church in the town of Liushi, 200 miles south of Shanghai in Zhejiang province, has had a turbulent history.

The new spread of Christianity has the Communist Party scratching its head."The child suddenly grew up and the parents don't know how to deal with the adult," the preacher, who is from China's illegal house-church movement, said.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.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.

"There wasn't room in the old building for all the followers, especially at Christmas and at Easter.

The new one is big and eye-catching." The Liushi church is not alone.

The 5,000-capacity Liushi church, which boasts more than twice as many seats as Westminster Abbey and a 206ft crucifix that can be seen for miles around, opened last year with one theologian declaring it a "miracle that such a small town was able to build such a grand church".

"It is a wonderful thing to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao's death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution.