WENZHOU, China -- Steeples are almost as common as skyscrapers on this city's skyline.

Built between mountains and water near the East China Sea, Wenzhou is China's best-known capitalistic urban center -- and perhaps its most Christian. As much as 99 percent of the city's economic activity is private sector, according to Chinese government statistics.

The Wenzhounese have proven as independent about their religion as they are about their entrepreneurial activities: Among the city's 120,000 Catholics, two-thirds choose to worship underground -- which means though their churches may remain in public view, the worshippers conduct their activities extralegally.

Beijing requires all worshippers and church leaders to register and subject themselves to strict government control of religious practices. Most of Wenzhou's Catholics refuse to submit to these formal rules.

Although Wenzhou's local authorities are more accommodating to extralegal religious practice than many other places in China, they still face top-down pressure from the Chinese government to crack down on the underground worshippers.

"The higher-level government doesn't pay as much attention to [the good you do for your] community," said Scholastica Chen, a nun in Wenzhou's underground community. "They just care if you are legal or illegal."

Wenzhou's underground Catholics are nothing if not resilient. In the last year, they've opened a new, five-story church, seen their ranks grow by more than 1,200 members, and expanded their charitable outreach.

Yet, despite their achievements, Wenzhou's underground worshippers, like most Catholics across China, are isolated, cut off from fellow Catholics, in their country and around the world.

Church And State

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, Catholics and the government have clashed. The government is officially atheist, and has alternately seen religion as a scourge on the people, to be eliminated, or an historical oddity that will inevitably disappear.

Chinese Catholics' darkest days occurred during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s through the first half of the 1970s when China's then-leader Mao Zedong and his hardline followers attempted to eradicate religion in what may have been the harshest and most widespread persecution of the Church in all history, according to Voice of the Martyrs, a Canadian nonprofit organization that monitors religious freedom issues.

But Mao's attack on the church ultimately subsided as the Cultural Revolution itself failed and was replaced by social and economic reforms. Instead, Beijing established a bureaucracy to oversee religious practice, which required worshippers of any stripe to sign up with the government. The governmental organization that monitors the activity of Catholics is known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPCA). Through it, the government sets limits on everything from doctrine to church appointments. About 5.7 million Chinese Catholics belong to the so-called open church, while the underground Catholic movement boasts anywhere from 3.3 million to 6 million adherents.

The primary schism between the two sects is over allegiance to, on one side, the Chinese government and, on the other, the Vatican. While the Vatican has never disavowed its relations with the Chinese open church (even though the CPCA ostensibly supports abortion and artificial contraception), underground Catholics believe that the Communist Party's influence over registered Catholicism lacks legitimacy -- particularly since the party's official stance is that religion will eventually disappear from human history.

The naming of bishops is an especially contentious issue between the open and underground communities. In virtually all cases around the world, the Vatican is the ultimate authority in approving the appointment of bishops, but Beijing skirts this requirement by giving people the title without any consultation with the Holy See.

Anthony Liu Bainian, the honorary chairman of the CPCA who manages the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, has said that what he and his colleagues look for in choosing a bishop is people "who love the country and love religion; politically, they should respect the Constitution, respect the law, and fervently love the socialist motherland."

Even Pope Benedict XVI -- who has walked a delicate line to avoid alienating Chinese officials (and thus lose contact with millions of Catholics in the country) while bemoaning China's independence from the Vatican -- has pointed to the problems that this approach has yielded.

In a 2007 letter to Chinese priests, the pope wrote: "In recent years, for various reasons, you ... have encountered difficulties since persons who are not 'ordained,' and sometimes not even baptized, control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops, in the name of various State agencies. Consequently, we have witnessed a demeaning of the Petrine and episcopal ministries."

Surveillance And Isolation

In an attempt to maintain control over Chinese Catholicism, government authorities have taken pains to keep underground Catholics in check. At Beijing's prompting, officials detained for a period of days Wenzhou's underground bishop and chancellor this spring. It is estimated that nationwide, between 30 and 40 underground Chinese bishops are in official custody, under surveillance, disappeared, or hiding.

Underground parishioners feel the lack of religious freedom keenly in their isolation from other Catholics globally. While unregistered Protestants are able to communicate regularly and forge small-scale connections with foreign Christians and churches, Catholics' centralized, organized structure works to their detriment in this respect. The Chinese government knows the identities of underground Catholics and their leaders, which makes it easy to intercept communications with outsiders.

Under pressure from international religious leaders, Beijing has slowly allowed the open church to forge ties with other Catholics around the world. Occasionally CPCA-registered bishops are allowed to travel to meet with their international counterparts or invite them to China. Partnerships between foreign Catholics and the open church are also permitted, as are donations from abroad.

"There's more freedom for [worshippers] to do anything," said Hong Ke Lin, secretary of Chengdu's diocese, which is registered with the government. "According to the government, there is no [restriction] about 'you can do this, you can't do this.' Lots of freedom."

Unsurprisingly, the Wenzhou underground sees it differently. The government is actually making use of [open Catholics] to gain face and recognition from an international platform, telling the outside world that we allow connections between the local and international church, said a leader of the Wenzhou underground church. But this is only a disguise.

As in so many aspects of Chinese life, it is unclear who is right. There's no doubt that the Catholic underground in China continues to feel the pinch of a repressive government. But at the same time, religious freedom in China is probably at its highest point in nearly four decades. So the question that Chinese Catholics face is: Which is true -- that things are getting better, or just the illusion that they are?

Jillian Kay Melchior is an Asia-based Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation