Ignoring Christian Oppression in China

World Evangelical Alliance: it's "turn the other cheek," not "turn and look away."

Just like President Obama’s first state visit to the People’s Republic of China, the mid-November 2009 visit of a delegation of international church leaders to the state-approved church in China began in Shanghai and ended in Beijing. Obama’s visit was heavy on diplomacy, but he did raise some general concerns about human rights and religious freedom. Shockingly, it was the church delegation from the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) that remained silent on that subject.

Press releases from the church delegation could have passed for White House/State Department media statements. Written in glowing terms, the WEA’s statements were free of criticism of the Chinese Communist regime’s persecution of religious believers and other human rights abuses. One release noted how the WEA delegation was “warmly received” by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the Communist regime’s ministry for monitoring and controlling churches. Another said that they had developed a “warm and open relationship of dialogue” with the state-approved China Christian Council. What was missing in the delegation’s reports was mention of any meetings with the vast majority of Chinese Christians that worship outside the confines of state-approved churches. In fact, the reports failed to even mention the existence of China’s 80 million or more house church Christians.

It has long been true that the left-leaning World Council of Churches (WCC) ignores vast swaths of the world’s persecuted Christians while “prophetically” defending the “victims” of America and Israel. They have more often seen Christians – particularly evangelical ones who insist embarrassingly on sharing their faith – as the persecutors, not the persecuted. But the WEA delegation, which met with China’s state-approved churches, and only state-approved churches, is part of an international organization created to give “worldwide identity, voice, and platform to more than 420 million evangelical Christians.” Yet eighty million Chinese house church Christians, evangelical Christians, were left without identity, voice, or platform in the WEA’s China report.

While meeting in Shanghai with the national leadership of the China Christian Council and the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TPSM), the WEA praised the “health and vibrancy” of the Chinese Church. The official church in China has experienced impressive growth in recent years.  As many as 20 million attend the official Protestant churches and another 10 million the state-approved Catholic Church. Still, many would question whether or not “healthy and vibrant” accurately describes a church whose members are resigned to existence under strict government control, and in which participation by children under the age of 18 and certain topics for sermons are forbidden.

Bob Fu, a human rights activist and former prisoner of faith in China, was shocked by the one-sided statement from his fellow evangelical Christians. Fu, the founder and president of China Aid, an advocacy and humanitarian relief organization, responded that while “there are true brothers and sisters leading faithful lives who attend the state churches,” the WEA statement’s “failure to mention 80 million faithful Christians who are clearly the majority of Chinese Christian population and meet in house churches and rented offices, has compromised the cause of the suffering church in China.” Fu added that “faithful house church prisoners who number in the thousands are grieved by WEA’s statement.”

Even as WEA and Chinese church officials were discussing pastor training, seminary development, and the “integration of evangelism and social services,” Chinese Communist authorities were cracking down on Shanghai’s two thousand-member Wangban Missionary Church. China Aid reported that local government authorities had “launched a city-wide man-hunt for the members of Wangban Church” to prevent any embarrassing encounters when President Obama arrived in Shanghai. The previous Sunday, November 8, every church attendee had been interrogated and fingerprinted, and then on November 12, police had evicted the church members from their building. But the resilient Wangban Church members continued to meet outdoors in spite of threats of arrest and the detention of the pastors. Perhaps this might be considered healthy and vibrant?

Among the agencies the WEA visited in Nanjing was the famous Amity Printing Company, the only government-approved printing press for Bibles. The WEA delegation effused over Amity’s “significant Bible printing operation,” but according to China Aid, Bibles printed by the Amity Printing Press are only available for sale at TSPM bookstores in urban areas.

Christians from rural areas are forced to travel thousands of miles to the nearest TSPM bookstores, and then are only allowed to buy a single Bible in one purchase. Many house church members have engaged in significant Bible printing operations of their own, but Bibles and other religious materials printed outside the government-sanctioned system are illegal. When discovered, printers are frequently arrested and their presses destroyed.

Often such contraband is confiscated in the process of a police raid on a house church. For example, on September 13, 2009, officials confiscated all of the Bibles, cell phones, and money of church members when they raided the Fushan branch of the 50,000-member Linfen Church and its associated Good News Shoe Factory in Shanxi province. Police beat up and injured several dozen church members and arrested a number of the church leaders. They destroyed property to such an extent that church members compared the scene to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. China Aid says the local emergency room “was instructed by anonymous authorities to withhold treatment and prohibit blood transfusions for the injured church members.” One week after the WEA’s China visit, ten of the Linfen Church leaders were sentenced to long sentences in prison and reeducation-through-labor camps.

The last stop in the WEA delegation’s China visit was Beijing, where they met with local church leaders and government officials. The WEA stated that it “had gained some new perspectives on the church in this complex and huge nation.” But they may have gained a more realistic perspective on Christianity in China if they had been singing in the snow with the thousand members of Beijing’s Shouwang House Church, who were locked out of their rented worship space by the authorities on November 1. Forced to hold worship services outdoors in Haidian Park, the church members continue to meet – even during snowstorms. Interestingly, on November 15, authorities concerned about their exuberant witness told the church that they must meet indoors because of President Obama’s visit. For that one Sunday they were allowed to meet inside a theatre in the northeast part of the city before being relegated to the streets once again.

The WEA might also have gained a more realistic perspective if they had been at the Beijing home of Christian human rights attorney Jiang Tianyong. On November 19, Jiang was arrested and his wife beaten in front of their seven-year-old daughter as they left to take the girl to school early that morning. Jiang had angered Chinese authorities by coming to Washington, DC and testifying on behalf of another Beijing human rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng. Gao has been held and tortured, whereabouts unknown, since February 4, 2009. Other human rights attorneys, activists, and house church leaders in Beijing have suffered similar experiences. Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng has been imprisoned since March 2006 for exposing 120,000 forced abortions that took place in one year in Shandong Province. And in 2009 over 22 Christian human rights attorneys lost their law licenses.

Although the TSPM church has a small presence in China’s autonomous regions, the WEA delegation did not venture there. But some of the Chinese authorities’ harshest punishments have been meted out to Christian converts from Islam in Xinjiang. Of particular concern is the case of Alimujiang Yimiti, a Uyghur Christian convert from Islam. Because of his Christian conversion, Alimujiang was illegally detained and held in prison for two years with no trial for “subverting the national government.” This charge, which usually applies to Uyghur insurgents who resist the Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang, is punishable by death. On December 7, 2009 Alimujiang was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment on the false charge of “leaking state secrets.” He has not been allowed even one visit from his family, including his wife and two little boys, aged three and nine.

In reality, none of these incidents would come as a surprise to the WEA delegation. They are well aware of the challenges and suffering faced by China’s house churches. But according to their press release, church officials with whom they met “greatly value international partnerships that respect the mission and calling of the national church” and the WEA is eager to partner with China’s national church, even at the cost of ignoring China’s house churches.

“While we affirm WEA’s sincere intentions to serve the Church … the WEA’s public statement about their visit with TSPM leaders and Chinese government leaders has contributed to a misleading assessment about the true situation of the church in China,” Fu declared in his response to the WEA released on December 18, 2009.

Proverbs 27: 6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Fu’s words may not be comfortable for the WEA, but they are true and they are meant for the good. Likewise, the WEA would do more good for China’s state church by speaking out against the injustices inflicted on the house churches. Helping the state church to face the truth would show respect for the mission and calling of all of the Church in China.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).