China could not silence 200 empty chairs in Capetown

11/07/2010 10:01

From Persecution News

Some 4,000 evangelical Christians from around the world had planned to highlight China's burgeoning church on Oct. 18, the first full day of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Capetown, South Africa.

The 200 Chinese evangelicals selected to attend the Congress were the second largest national delegation at the conference, and, in anticipation of the event, they supplied the Congress's leadership with a special song for the occasion, "The Lord's Love for China."

When the special day arrived, however, the 4,000 voices of Lausanne sang the "The Lord's Love for China" next to 200 hundred empty seats.

Members of the Chinese delegation never left the airport after their government seized their passports and sent them home. "The explanation was 'for your own good,' " Liu Guan, a protestant leader, told the New York Times.

The Lausanne episode highlights continuing tensions regarding China's official stance on religious freedom, especially as the country's blossoming "house churches" continue to grow exponentially.

China has only three state-sanctioned Christian groups -- the China Christian Council, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

There is a palpable difference between the house church Christians and the state Christian churches, said Michael Cromartie, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"We went to China and met with those [state church] types. They were what you would expect a government religious leader to be, which is a totally government-controlled religious leader," Cromartie said.

"The idea of sending house church people who the government does not trust to be encouraged in the faith and refortified by going to a meeting of 4,000 evangelicals from around the world is probably appalling to the Chinese government," he said.

While inviting the house church leaders might be seen as bold, the Lausanne leadership emphasizes the invitation was not a provocation.

"Lausanne does not intend to challenge the Chinese government's principle of 'independent, autonomous and self-governed churches,'" stated Doug Birdsall, executive chair of The Lausanne Movement.

The Lausanne Movement was first organized by Billy Graham in 1974 and named for the town in Switzerland where the first Congress convened.

Larry Ross, a Lausanne spokesman, said China's Three-Self Patriotic Movement had also been invited to observe the Congress. Ross said house church leaders were invited because they wanted "the right people there who were most reflective of the churches in these various countries," adding that the "invitation process was wrongly perceived."

The controversy did not end there. In Capetown, the Congress' internet uplink was the victim of a cyber attack, though organizers would not speculate on where the attack originated. The Chinese government has been a suspect in recent international hacking incidents.

The incident at Lausanne followed extensive criticism of President Obama and the U.S. Department of State for not defending religious freedom.

Since Obama took office, the position as head of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom remains unfilled. The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor declined to comment on the Lausanne incident.

Thomas Farr, the former head of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, and others have also criticized the administration for emptying its statements on religious freedom of force and substance.

Instead of the traditional comments discussion of "freedom of religion," Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been using the phrase "freedom of worship."

The rhetorical difference speaks directly to countries like China and Saudi Arabia where citizens are said to have freedom of worship in controlled private spaces such as homes, but do not have the freedom to express their religion publicly.


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