As churches are demolished at home, Chinese Christians find religious freedom in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN)Every Sunday morning in an affluent suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, the soaring song of Chinese hymns fills the empty corridors of a Monday-to-Friday office block.

Inside a small makeshift chapel, a kaleidoscopic congregation of Chinese migrants gather to pray. Among them are underwear importers, health workers and operators of the controversial new $3.8 billion Chinese-built railway that slices through Kenya, the country's biggest infrastructure project since independence -- and a sign of China's growing investment and footprint on the continent.
Some have married Kenyans, others have Chinese children who speak Swahili as well as they do Mandarin.
    But they all share two things. Each person here has re-rooted their life from Communist China to Kenya, a leading African economy where 80% of the nearly 50 million people are Christian. And they have all decided to openly embrace God.
    Jonathon Chow, 43, a senior pastor  at the Bread of Life Church, delivers a sermon to the Nairobi congregation during a visit from Taiwan, where he is based and the church is headquartered.
    Their religious awakening comes at a perilous moment for Christians in China, as the Communist Party government bans online sales of bibles, dynamites churches and arrests Christians for "inciting subversion of state power." The Communist Party sees any large group outside its dominion as a threat.
    "Publicly, it's dangerous to be a Christian in China right now," says Jonathon Chow, 43, a senior pastor at the Bread of Life Church, which is headquartered in Taiwan but has 500 ministries, including many in West Africa.
    Previously, the organization's churches in Africa tended to be run and attended by Africans, he says. But increasingly Bread of Life is seeing Chinese-led congregations forming across the continent, as more Chinese move to Africa and interact with local values.
    The Golden Lampstand Church, in China, was demolished with dynamite and heavy machinery in January 2018.
    Throughout the service, a middle-aged couple from Shandong province, who say they are new to Kenya and the ministry, post audio clips of hymns and photographs of readings onto WeChat, a social network closely monitored by the Chinese government.
    "Most of the congregation here got saved in Kenya," says Chow. "Unless they were a believer before they came, most don't know a lot about the Christian conditions in China."

    'The Kenyan wedding everyone is talking about'

    The first time Liang Yongyu met Karen Ngunjiri at the billboard advertising company where they both worked in Nairobi, he told her she would be his wife.
    The pair dated for 6 months, then hit a roadblock that threatened to scupper his swaggering prediction. Liang, 33, was not a Christian.
    "That was a deal breaker for me," says Ngunjiri, 29, who spent four years studying Mandarin in Nanning, south-west China. "Him being Chinese? Not a problem. But him not being a Christian, I thought that was going to be a big issue. How would we bring up our children?"
    Liang had lived in Kenya for a "long time," could speak some Swahili and had been "hearing a lot about Christianity" from his Kenyan friends, Ngunjiri says. After some soul searching, he said he "was open to exploring what Christianity had to offer," she adds.
    Liang connected with a church in Nairobi that held services in Cantonese -- the language spoken in his home province of Guangdong, in southern China, and Hong Kong, where the pastors who founded the ministry were from.
    In December 2018, those Hong Kong pastors married the couple in a Christian ceremony in the shadow of Mount Kenya in front of 200 guests -- "a small wedding for Kenya," jokes Ngunjiri.
    Weeks later, a video of their wedding went viral on YouTube with the title: "THE KENYAN WEDDING EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT." Ngunjiri still doesn't know who uploaded it, but for months the newlyweds couldn't walk down the street in Nairobi without being recognized. The novelty of a Kenyan woman marrying a Chinese man had got people's attention.
    Liang Yongyu and Karen Ngunjiri were married near Mount Kenya after he converted to Christianity for her.
    "Some of the comments (online) were horrible," she says, of the video that has since been taken down, but at its peak had nearly 300,000 views, according to Ngunjiri. "Especially from Kenyans. There's this idea that the Chinese are here to steal our jobs or colonize us. So the joke was now they're stealing our women."
    In 2017, China was Kenya's largest trading partner and, in 2014, the country was home to an estimated 40,000 Chinese migrants. But their relations with Kenyans have, at times, been tense.
    In 2015, a Chinese restaurateur reportedly banned African patrons after 5 p.m., last year a Chinese boss was deported from Kenya after being caught on video calling an employee a "monkey," and local media has claimed that Kenyan workers on the Chinese-built railway have been treated like second-class citizens by their foreign employers.
    Kenyans are also concerned about how much debt their country owes to China. Last year, in a seeming show of strength against Chinese dominance President Kenyatta Uhuru banned imports of cheap Chinese fish, amid claims it was squeezing out local produce. But his ban was soon reversed: Kenya does not produce enough fish to feed itself.
    Kenyan workers on the Standard Gauge Railway; Chinese supervisors on the platform in Nairobi; Kenyan staff man the modern terminal.
    The anti-Chinese commentators on Ngunjiri's wedding video, however, had perhaps missed the point.
    Rather than Ngunjiri being overpowered by Chinese culture, it was Liang who had changed his faith and agreed to a Christian African wedding with just 20 Chinese guests who didn't include his mother, embracing a new culture 5,300 miles from home.

    A new door opens

    An estimated 1 million Chinese have moved to the African continent in the 21st century, according to journalist Howard French's book "China's Second Continent," amid growing trade ties between the two regions. But what is perhaps unique about Kenya's Chinese population, and why it is embracing the country's religious culture, is its diversity. A 2015 study found the Chinese in Kenya are spread "across every sector in a significant way."
    This makes a difference. Employees of government-owned giants, shipped out to build roads in Uganda or airports in Zimbabwe, for example, are typically bused to and from work and must stay inside their compounds in the evenings and at weekends unless given approval to leave by a manager. But in Nairobi -- a vibrant city home to African tech giant M-Pesa, which revolutionized mobile banking in East Africa -- a younger generation of Chinese are working in the private sector, freer to explore new cultures and belief systems through their personal connections with local people.
    Annie Hu, 30, began attending church in Kenya; Chinese and Kenyan employees mix at a media company office; the China Center where many Chinese expats have businesses.
    Among them is Annie Hu, 30, who relocated to Kenya five years ago and works for a Chinese financial technology, or fintech, giant. She says the 9-to-5 "pole pole" (meaning "slowly slowly" in Swahili) lifestyle here is more attractive than the 9-9-6 grind -- working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week -- at some of China's biggest technology companies in the country's Silicon Valley city of Shenzhen, where she relocated from.
    "Living in a developing country and international city you encounter different nationalities, races and lifestyles," Hu says. After frequently traveling for work to the Muslim majority city of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, she went to Lebanon and Jordan last year to learn more about Muslim culture. "It opened a totally new door for me," she says. Asked how she felt about China's treatment of Muslims, Hu replies: "We need more understanding."
    Hu's family is Buddhist but in Nairobi she has attended Christian churches, including one led by Hong Kong pastors, as well as a Maasai church. "Kenyans believe in God more than my Western friends," she says. "Once we engage with the local community it's inevitable we are invited to join the church. These people are very friendly and reliable and they try to build a supportive community for the Chines​e."
    Chow from Bread of Life agrees the church is an important social network for newcomers. "I also think the cultural differences and the hardship the Chinese experience here means they are more open to the gospel," he says.
    For Hu, flirting with various Christian communities hasn't resulted in a full conversion. "It's brought more different religions into my life ... But I didn't reach a point where I felt I want to become a serious Christian yet. Not yet," she adds.

    The world's biggest Christian nation?

    It is not only the Chinese in Kenya who are embracing Christianity. Many Chinese students in America, Australia and the UK are returning home Christian, says Ian Johnson, author of "The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao." Their conversion chimes with a broader trend at home: China itself is on track to be the world's biggest Christian nation by 2030, by some estimates.
    For much of the 20th century, Chinese citizens were taught to worship the founding father of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who destroyed much of the nation's Buddhist and Taoist religious infrastructure during the Cultural Revolution. "There used to be 900 temples in Beijing alone," says Johnson. "Now there are 20."