In a modest church hall at the end of a row of red-brick terrace houses, a minister outlines an ambitious plan - the Chinese evangelisation of Europe. 'Look at these young people, the second generation of Chinese in Europe,' Symon Wong says. 'They will speak fluent English, French and Spanish. They will evangelise Europe. People in the West are increasingly distant from God, but in [mainland] China the gospel is filling the spiritual vacuum.' Wong is associate pastor at the Belfast Chinese Christian Church (BCCC) in Northern Ireland. The BCCC's immediate target is to evangelise the growing number of Mandarin-speakers, who account for about half the Chinese in Ulster. But, like other Chinese churches in Europe, their longer-term aim is to spread the word to the local population and other parts of the world. 'The hand of God is more powerful than the hand of man. China is sending missionaries to Africa and the Middle East. We call this the 'Back to Jerusalem' movement,' he says. The mainland is the fastest-growing Christian place on earth. Evangelist fervour is especially strong in the house churches, which have survived decades of communist persecution. Just last month, the China Academy of Social Sciences announced that the number of Protestants in the mainland had reached a record 23.05 million; as well, there were 5.7 million Catholics. And these are only the numbers for the official churches. Non-official estimates put the total, including those in house and underground churches, at about 70 million. The numbers are a stark contrast to those in Europe, including Belfast, which has one of the highest concentrations of churches of any city in Europe, from Catholic, to Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Moravian and Jehovah's Witness and other evangelical denominations. Church attendance in Ireland is, with Poland, among the highest in Europe. But Belfast has too many churches. Some have been sold to developers or have found new uses - as an Indian cultural centre, a Chinese restaurant or a night club. The membership of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (PCI), one of the largest Protestant denominations, has fallen from 324,000 in 1990 to 250,000 today. Laurence Kirkpatrick, historian of the PCI, says statistics indicate the church is in serious decline. 'Total PCI membership has fallen by 33 per cent in the last 35 years ... In most congregations, a small number of overworked leaders carry the entire organisational workload,' he says. It is the same story in other churches, including the once mighty Catholic Church, which has been rocked by scandals of priests sexually abusing young men and their superiors covering up the crimes for decades. Attendance is falling in nearly all denominations. Chinese believers see Europe in moral and spiritual decline. Wong says people in the West spent a great deal of time shopping and in front of computers and televisions. 'As their material life has become richer, so their spiritual life has declined. Look at the US. When it was founded, it was very close to God and the religious spirit played a major part in its establishment. Now that it is rich and powerful, it is in moral decline,' he says. Huang Mei, a restaurant manager attending the church's weekly Mandarin service, says the life of the Westerners is too easy and comfortable and they do not need God. 'But the lives of Chinese are very difficult. This forces us to seek spiritual help and comfort.' Huang Jiayun is a young Taiwanese completing a master's degree in nursing at Queen's University and plans to return to Taiwan and become a Protestant minister. 'In the West, human rights have replaced God. In addition, young people are individualist and do not listen to their parents,' Huang says. Last year in Belfast, Wong baptised a Communist Party official from Hefei , capital of Anhui province, where he is part of a congregation of 7,000. 'He was too afraid to be baptised at home, for fear of being expelled from the party. Some provincial leaders are strict, some less so. Some allow party members to attend worship,' Wong says. The BCCC has hired a Mandarin-speaking American Presbyterian minister and aim to hire other Mandarin-speaking ministers as part of its evangelisation efforts. About 30,000 Chinese live in Northern Ireland, forming its largest ethnic minority, and 1,000 or so students come each year to study at Ulster's universities. 'After their education, they are initially suspicious but, when they see our love and care, they change their views and study the Bible,' Wong says. 'Many join the church.' The instrument for the longer-term aim of evangelising local people will be second-generation Chinese, born and educated in Europe, who have the necessary language and cultural skills. Dr Simon Au, a consultant physician who is chairman of the BCCC council, says this second generation can speak English, French, Spanish and the languages of the countries where they are brought up. 'They have no burden of being Caucasian. Spreading the gospel is part of our responsibility. That is why we need an English ministry,' he says. 'Since China is developing fast as a country and there are so many Chinese around the world, we have a role to promote God's kingdom. Chinese are good messengers to spread the gospel to other races. All the Chinese churches in Europe have this vision.' One of the organisations that will carry out this task is the China Overseas Christian Mission, founded in 1950. Headquartered in Milton Keynes in Britain, it has offices in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States and Canada. 'As we approach out 60th anniversary, we see a great number of Chinese churches and fellowship groups spreading across Europe,' the Reverend Henry Liu, its general director, says. 'Many have grown to be spiritually strong and mission-minded.' One of the most ambitious projects of the mainland's house churches is the Back to Jerusalem movement to evangelise the Middle East and Africa. This is based on the belief that the Christian faith began in Palestine and went to Europe, then the Americas and Asia - and that now is the time for it to return to its roots. Its members believe Western missionaries cannot work in some countries because of the hatred caused by the wars and campaigns of their governments. However, their populations can accept Chinese as neutral and well-intentioned. According to its website, it sent out its first 36 missionaries in March 2000 and aims to send up to 100,000 more, to complete the task of evangelising the world. The 36 are 'all battle-hardened warriors of the gospel. Almost all have been arrested, imprisoned, beaten, slandered and tortured.' It says God has trained the mainland's house churches for the past 50 years through a sacrifice of blood, imprisonment, torture, suffering and hardship - the best preparation for missionary work in countries that may be hostile to Christianity. Church groups in Ireland and other countries around the world send Christian materials and teachers - most of whom help the churches in their spare time - to these house churches, in an effort to keep their theology orthodox and prevent them dividing up into dozens of splinter groups. They say the members of the house churches have the fervour of the early church that makes them want to carry their faith around the world. They have the purity and intensity of faith that most believers in the West have lost.