China's government is preventing Christian leaders in the country from attending a major international gathering of mission-minded leaders by stopping them as they reach the airport and confiscating their passports.
While it's unclear how many Chinese Christian leaders have been stopped so far, more than 230 were invited to go to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa.
And with delegates scheduled to arrive over the weekend, reports are trickling in of how adamant the Chinese government is about preventing delegates from China from attending.
On 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.
Liu Guan, one of the five, told major Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao News that border inspectors refused to let them go through after seeing information about the Lausanne Congress on their passport visas. Shortly after, five or six government security officers arrived along with other authorities who seized their luggage and confiscated their passports.
Though Liu reported that the law enforcement officers were polite and that there were no conflicts between the two sides, he was not allowed to board the plane and was sent home about three hours later. Liu's passport and those of his colleagues will not be returned to them until Oct. 25 – the last day of the Lausanne Congress.
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 and is en route to South Africa.
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.
"Chinese house church Christians who have been invited to the Lausanne Congress are under much pressure from authorities who are using different means in order to prevent them from attending the congress," reported the Shouwang Church in Beijing in a statement.
Shouwang, which planned to send eight formal representatives and four volunteers to Cape Town, also noted that one Congress invitee – Liu Jintao of Baotou, Inner Mongolia – was placed on a 15-day administration detention on Oct. 9. By the time he is released, Liu Jintao will have missed the Congress.
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.
Ma accused Lausanne leaders of having "secretly extended multiple invitations to Christians who privately set up meeting points," namely members of China's underground churches, which refuse to register because of conflicting beliefs.
"This action publicly challenges the principle of independent, autonomous, domestically organized, and therefore represents a rude interference in Chinese religious affairs," Ma expressed in a statement Friday.
Leaders of the Lausanne Movement, which is spearheading the Congress, however, say TSPM/CCC representatives were invited but had turned down the invitation.
The likely reason the invitations were turned down is because on-site participants of the Congress are required to affirm The Lausanne Covenant and commit to Lausanne's vision, integral parts of which center on global evangelization.
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. Furthermore, critics have accused the organization's leaders of placing submission to the state's authority above submission to Christ's authority.
The Lausanne Covenant, on the other hand, clearly states under its section on "Freedom and Persecution" that "[i]t is the God-appointed duty of every government to secure conditions of peace, justice and liberty in which the Church may obey God, serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and preach the gospel without interference."
"We also express our deep concern for all who have been unjustly imprisoned, and especially for those who are suffering for their testimony to the Lord Jesus. We promise to pray and work for their freedom," it adds.
With the Lausanne Congress set to officially commence Sunday, it is unclear how many of the 200 or so invitees from China will be able to get out of the country in time.
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."
Starting Sunday, the Lausanne Congress will bring together 4,000 Christian leaders from around the world to discuss the future of the Church and world evangelization.
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 Oct. 16 -25 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.