WASHINGTON – The head of the World Evangelical Alliance sought Tuesday to address concerns raised by Chinese house churches upset over his organization's decision to not visit or even mention them during a recent trip to China.
In an exclusive interview with The Christian Post, Geoff Tunnicliffe, the international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, said the over 150-year-old ministry has a long history of promoting religious freedom and its promotion remains a "core principle" for the organization.
"We believe that religious freedom and human rights are tied together and we are not going to step away from that kind of commitment," Tunnicliffe stated. "In fact, we believe we will continue to be strong advocates for that."
But the WEA leader highlighted the need to take into account the context of the situation when determining the best mechanism to promote religious freedom. He pointed to two prophets in the Bible that serve as models on how to engage with governments – Elijah and Obadiah.
"Elijah is fiery, in your face, outspoken, a prophet speaking out for social justice in the public," Tunnicliffe said. "Obadiah worked inside the palace and he worked quietly behind the scenes, but again, very committed to justice. And sometimes you can think the job of Obadiah, because he was connected to the structure of power, was an easier job. But in reality it is a more difficult job I think."
In November 2009, a delegation of 24 WEA leaders met with church leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC) – the umbrella organization for all registered Protestant churches. The WEA leaders visited several Chinese cities, including Nanjing, where they were hosted by the Jiangsu Christian Council, Nanjing Seminary, the Amity Foundation and the Amity Printing Co., Ltd.
The Amity Press is the only government-approved Bible printing press in China.
The WEA delegation also visited Beijing and met with local church leaders and government officials.
Upon returning from the trip, WEA released a report praising the enthusiasm of Chinese Christians for the Lord and expressing eagerness to build a "constructive" relationship with the state-approved church body.
In response to WEA's report, ChinaAid Association, a religious freedom group specializing in Chinese house church issues, issued a statement saying it was concerned that the WEA report had "contributed to a misleading assessment about the true situation of the church in China."
"In this overtly positive assessment, there was no acknowledgment of the existence and current deteriorating condition of the more than 80 million believers in China who have chosen, often with dangerous and uncertain consequences, to worship outside the state-sanctioned religious system," CAA said, reportedly on behalf of Chinese house churches.
"WEA's issued statement on this visit to China would lead the international community to believe that the Christian church is alive and well – free to worship under the atheist communist system," the Texas-based organization added, while acknowledging that there are true Christian believers who attend TSPM/CCC-approved churches.
"This over-simplifies a far more complicated situation for Christians living under communist-rule in China."
In China, citizens are only allowed to worship in religious institutions approved by the bodies established by China's Religious Affairs Bureau to exercise state supervision over them. For Protestant Christians, this means worshiping in churches affiliated with the TSPM/CCC.
However, tens of millions – and up to 100 million by some estimates – of Chinese Christians refuse to worship in registered churches. "Underground" or "house church" Christians worship secretly in homes at the risk of being arrested, fined, or imprisoned by Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials.
They argue that the government should not be the head of the church, and restricting where they can worship is infringing on their religious freedom.
"Faithful house church prisoners who number in the thousands are grieved by WEA's statement," CAA contended in its statement last month.
"While it is certainly the WEA's prerogative to only meet with national, state-sanctioned and Three-Self church leaders, their 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," it added.
Tunnicliffe, in response to the criticism, explained that it was the first trip WEA ever made at the official invitation of TSPM/CCC leaders.
"The purpose of our visit to China – it was really a historic visit – was to begin building a relationship," the evangelical head explained. "The primary purpose was not advocacy for any movement within China, but to simply build understanding."
WEA, he noted, had to also overcome the stereotype that evangelical Christians have a certain political motive or bias. So part of the goal of the trip was to de-stigmatize the understanding of what evangelicals are worldwide.
In the case of the TSPM/CCC-associated churches, Tunnicliffe said the church leaders wanted to explain to WEA out of their context what was happening in their churches.
"It (the meeting) was to start a journey of trust," the Canadian evangelical leader said.
Tunnicliffe also noted that WEA operates out of a principle that it never discusses in public what it talks about in private.
"And so we recognize that some people's role within our evangelical world community is to be a constant public voice pointing out issue," Tunnicliffe said. "WEA's role is to seek to determine what is the best mechanism for different contexts. And this applies to China and other parts of the world. So WEA has both a public and private voice."
The World Evangelical Alliance is a network of churches in 128 nations and over 100 international organizations. The organization represents more than 420 million evangelical Christians around the world. Its mission is to foster Christian unity and provide a worldwide identity, voice and platform to Evangelical Christians.