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.