Beijing bars churches from conference

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am

Beijing has barred about 200 Protestant church representatives on the mainland from joining a global religious conference in South Africa.

Representatives from unregistered Protestant churches across the border originally planned to attend the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in Cape Town from today to October 25.

The diverse religious groups have refused to become members of the Three-Self Patriotic Church backed by the central government. In turn, the state-sanctioned church has declined an invitation to attend the congress as observers.

Mainland officials have approached at least one Protestant leader in Hong Kong to help present a more sympathetic case for Beijing at the congress, apparently fearing the mainland would be unrepresented. But that leader did not, in the end, join about 20 Hong Kong representatives at the South Africa congress.

Pressure on the mainland delegates began to mount two months ago when they were warned by police not to attend. In recent weeks, delegates were blocked from leaving the mainland, although they hold valid visas issued by South Africa.

Some had their passports confiscated, some have been intimidated and put under surveillance, some were intercepted at airport immigration and some outside their homes. At least one minister from Inner Mongolia was detained for organising 'illegal' religious activities, according to Chinese delegates. An open letter issued by mainland delegates last night criticised the acts as 'a serious violation of the constitution' and 'infringement of the religious freedom of Chinese citizens'.

Julia Cameron, director of external relations for the Cape Town congress, said organiser asked Beijing about the absence of Chinese delegates but received no satisfactory reply.

'We are saddened at the news as the Chinese will be greatly missed,' she said. 'Yes, we have made representation to the Chinese government. We are genuinely puzzled by this response from the government, as China and South Africa have cordial relations.'

The organiser had no idea why mainland delegates were told the conference was 'anti-Chinese', as the Lausanne Congress' honorary chairman, the Reverend John Stott, was warmly welcomed during his visit to Beijing in 2007 and other senior members had excellent relations with the Three-Self Church, Cameron said.

According to a co-ordinator of the Chinese delegates, the participants were carefully chosen to represent the rapidly growing urban churches and the more traditional rural churches, as well as different regions, after two years of discussions among their leaders.

The mainland has one of the largest Protestant populations in the world. Their estimated numbers range from the official 23 million to some academic estimates of 100 million.

It would have been the first international gathering attended by Chinese Protestant house churches since 1949. In past decades, house churches have been low-key and stayed off the media radar to avoid persecution and harassment.

Some mainland house church members not on the participant list may still make their way to Cape Town, but a formal representation would not be possible, delegates said.

Police told the delegates that the event had been used by 'anti- Chinese' forces and they were not allowed to travel abroad until the conference was over.

The Lausanne Congress - initiated by the renowned preacher Billy Graham and which held its first meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974 - is regarded as one of the most important developments in recent Protestant church history. Its second meeting was in Manila in 1989.

Some 4,000 Protestant leaders from more than 200 countries are attending the conference in Cape Town to discuss issues including evangelism, poverty, the spread of Aids and persecution.

A mainland pastor intercepted at the airport doubted the reason provided by police for stopping him.

'When President Jiang Zemin went to the United States in 1997, he even invited Billy Graham for a meeting,' he said.

Mainland delegates believe Beijing is reluctant to have house churches rather than the state-sanctioned Three-Self Church.

represent the Chinese Protestant movement at such an important international event. The government-backed church will not attend the congress after being granted only observer status.

Full delegates are required to sign the Lausanne Covenant, an influential 1974 religious manifesto that confers fellowship.

However, with its founding principles of 'self-governance, self-support and self-propagation', the Three-Self Church cannot sign any document with a foreign country, according to Liu Peng , a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher studying Christianity and church development on the mainland.

Liu said it would be difficult to ask the organiser to change the requirement to sign the covenant only for one country.

Ou Enlin , deputy general secretary of the Overseas Relations Department of the China Christian Council, the national committee of the Three-Self Church, said it was regrettable that they could not participate in the conference. 'Of course it is regrettable that we cannot go. We have written to the chairman of the conference to explain why we cannot take part,' Ou said.

Liu said it would be embarrassing to Beijing to have the unregistered churches as formal representatives and government-sanctioned churches only as observers.

He believes Beijing's main concern is about what to do with unregistered churches once the conference is over.

'How should the government handle the relationship of unregistered churches and Three-Self churches after the conference? If none of them go, at least the government does not have to handle this problem right now,' he said.

Liu said another underlying concern of Beijing was the unprecedented network formed among unregistered churches during almost two years of preparation in selecting congress participants.

Beijing needed to decide what to do with the unregistered churches, he said. 'It is too early to say,' Liu said. '[But] the best solution is to give legal status to unregistered churches and govern them by law. But before that happens, dialogue is always better than confrontation.'

During the last Lausanne Congress in Manila in 1989, 200 seats were left vacant for the absent Chinese church. Twenty-one years later, the seats may remain vacant again, but the fallout may go well beyond the empty seats.

Empty chairs

The number of seats left vacant at the second Lausanne congress in Manila for Chinese delegates: 200