Chinese 'Underground' Church Leaders Lament Gov't Travel Ban

Members of the underground churches of China have released a joint statement in response to efforts by the Chinese government to prevent leaders of their movement from attending a major international gathering of Christian leaders.

The statement, issued Friday, accused the government of using "a variety of means" to prevent Chinese delegates to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization including "persuasion, surveillance, obstruction, detention and confiscation of passports at international airports."

"As a result, the vast majority of the Chinese delegation did not make it to the meeting," reported the statement, signed by the "China Lausanne Delegation."

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Over this past week, it became widely known that many of those who had been invited to attend the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, had been stopped from catching their flights upon reaching their respective airports. Their passports, furthermore, were confiscated.

Last Sunday, five members of China's "underground" church in Beijing were blocked from leaving the country from Beijing International Airport and at least one was detained.

In another report, Texas-based ChinaAid Association said one house church Christian was blocked from flying out of Shanghai International Airport, though another was cleared to leave.

According to the Christian persecution watchdog group, which has been monitoring the situation closely, around 1,000 law enforcement officers have been assigned to restrain would-be Lausanne delegates from China and prevent them from boarding the planes.

Furthermore, efforts to prevent underground church representatives from going to Cape Town have been ongoing over the past few months.

According to ChinaAid sources, all of the 200 or so house church representatives who were invited to attend the Lausanne Congress – whether Uyghur Christians from Xinjiang or Han Christians from Beijing – have been contacted by authorities for questioning.

When asked the reason behind the government effort, Ma Zhaoxu, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Congress organizers failed to formally invite the legal representatives of China's Christians – leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, the network of state-registered Protestant churches in China.

According to reports, TSPM/CCC had made a request to leaders of the Lausanne Movement, which is spearheading the Congress, to send delegates from their church body to the Cape Town gathering.

Though Lausanne welcomed the request, they required TSPM/CCC participants – as they have with all participants – to affirm The Lausanne Covenant and to commit to Lausanne's vision, integral parts of which center on global evangelization.

TSPM/CCC leaders, however, were unable to agree with Lausanne's statement as doing so would violate their own policies.

Notably, TSPM/CCC, in keeping in line with the Chinese government, approves only of evangelism in state-approved religious venues and private settings. Public evangelism is prohibited. The organization's leaders also place submission to the state's authority on par with (if not above) submission to Christ's authority.

The Lausanne Covenant, on the other hand, clearly states that the Church should be allowed by every government to "preach the gospel without interference."

"We believe the Gospel is God's good news for the whole world, and we are determined by his grace to obey Christ's commission to proclaim it to all mankind and to make disciples of every nation," it adds.

As TSPM/CCC leaders were unable to agree to Lausanne's requirements, the missions-minded organization consequently extended an invitation for them to join the conference as observers – an invitation that TSPM/CCC also declined considering how more than 200 invitations had been sent to members of the loosely-networked underground Church in China, which refuses to register with the state because of conflicting beliefs.

"The Church (TSPM/CCC) regrets that Lausanne has decided to split the Church of China in this way and therefore will not join Lausanne," the government-approved church leaders stated, according to Shouwang Church in Beijing, a house church that planned to send eight formal representatives and four volunteers to Cape Town.

Ma, in a statement Friday, further accused the Lausanne Movement of "publicly challeng[ing] the principle of independent, autonomous, domestically organized, and therefore represents a rude interference in Chinese religious affairs."

In light of the government's travel ban, members of the underground church in China who were invited to attend appealed to the relevant government departments to take away all the pressures and restrictions imposed on the delegates in an effort to "prevent the conflict between government and religious believers from deteriorating further."

"We hope the government will improve its religion policy and build a harmonious relationship between state and religion so that the church will become an even greater blessing for the Chinese society," they added.

The delegates also took the opportunity to publicly present their position and approach to church planting in a bid to legitimize their structure and efforts before the government and the international community.

"[T]he house church is the main part of the Christian church in China. It is a church with independence, self-governing and self-support," they stated, alluding to TSPM's three key "self" principles - self-governance, self-support and self-propagation.

"In recent decades, the house church in China has abided by the principle of the separation of state and religion. It has witnessed continued growth. From villages to cities, from the coastal areas to the hinterlands, from the central plains to the frontier, the house church can be found across China," the delegates added in the English translation of their statement.

"And from worship gatherings of dozens of people at home, the house church has grown to considerable sizes of hundreds or even thousands of worshippers meeting at office buildings, convention centers of hotels, and church buildings. The members of the house church have amounted to tens of millions of people from all walks of life. Now, it still grows rapidly. The house church has already become the main body of the Chinese church," they stated.

That said, the delegates said the government's efforts to prevent them from attending the Lausanne Congress - a gathering of great importance to them and the wider international Christian community - has "deeply hurt both the dignity and the feelings of a great number of religious believers."

Furthermore, the underground church had prepared not only the funds for their delegates to attend the Lausanne Congress, but also funds for 100 other delegates from neighboring countries and countries in Africa.

"Numerous churches and their members have made substantial donations," they reported.

With the Lausanne Congress set to begin Sunday night, there has yet been any indication from the Chinese government for an easing of travel restrictions.

A number of groups, including the U.S.-based National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), have called upon the Chinese government to lift its restrictions and uphold religious freedom and the right to travel.

The travel ban, NAE noted in a statement Friday, violates the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "every person has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

"This is surprising and disappointing," said NAE President Leith Anderson, who will be attending the gathering in Cape Town. "The People's Republic of China has recently welcomed dialogue with international Christians. I expected the Chinese to celebrate their presence and influence at Cape Town 2010 with delegations from 200 countries. I hope this is just a bureaucratic misunderstanding that will quickly be resolved so that China won't be the only country left out."

The Congress in Cape Town is the third major one to be held by the Lausanne Movement since 1974, when a committee headed by world renowned evangelist Billy Graham called for the first gathering.

The Third Congress, also referred to as Cape Town 2010, will be held this week at the Cape Town International Convention Centre and officially open Sunday night. It is scheduled to conclude on Oct. 24.

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