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Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025.

That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

From Yunnan province in China's balmy southwest to Liaoning in its industrial northeast, congregations are booming and more Chinese are thought to attend Sunday services each week than do Christians across the whole of Europe.

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

Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world's number one economy but also its most numerous Christian nation.

They want to train people to practice in a Communist way," said the house-church preacher, who said state churches often shunned potentially subversive sections of the Bible.

The Old Testament book in which the exiled Daniel refuses to obey orders to worship the king rather than his own god is seen as "very dangerous", the preacher added. Christians' growing power was on show earlier this month when thousands flocked to defend a church in Wenzhou, a city known as the "Jerusalem of the East", after government threats to demolish it.

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.

Now it is starting to send its own missionaries abroad, notably into North Korea, in search of souls.

"We want to help and it is easier for us than for British, South Korean or American missionaries," said one underground church leader in north China who asked not to be named.

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.

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