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Freedom and Sacrifice
Chinese Christians continue to thrive in spite of persecution. The dichotomy was especially highlighted during the Beijing Olympics. Faith Today explores reasons why this situation exists.

You could say Cai Zhouhua worked tirelessly for the Olympic movement. The 12- to 14-hour days he once spent manufacturing sports equipment for the Summer Games in Beijing, however, do not exactly fall within the lofty parameters of fair play and ethics espoused by the Olympic charter. According to The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), three years ago Cai – then leader of six house churches in China’s capital – was charged with illegally trafficking in Bibles that were not state manufactured. As a result, when Chinese citizens scrambled to set a stage for the world, Cai had no choice but to become part of the team.

A house church meets for worship.

Every four years, a different country is exposed to a litmus test of global proportions. And China, a country that takes enormous pride in its international reputation, posed no shortage of ethical dilemmas to make visiting democratic nations squeamish this summer. Religious freedoms topped the list for many observers. Cases like Cai’s – which was documented along with a number of others by EFC’s Religious Liberty Commission in its recent report Broken Promises: The Protestant Experience with Religious Freedom in China in Advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games – prove that at least some forms of Christianity feel the government’s heavy hand.

“The Olympics are providing Christians with a strategic opportunity to focus attention on the Protestant house church movement,” says the EFC’s Jocelyn Durston, one of the authors of the report.

Pastors in China estimate there are more than 60 million Christians in the country – 16 million members of state churches and 45 million to 48 million in underground house churches.

The house church movement began during the 1950s and China’s cultural revolution. By all accounts it continues to grow despite – or perhaps because of – government persecution. The China for Christ house church, for instance, estimates it has ten million members. To put things into perspective, this is roughly the entire population of Ontario.

Durston says the Chinese government launched a public relations campaign emphasizing personal freedoms in the lead-up to the Olympics while, at the same time, strategically targeting Christian leaders and missionaries “under the radar.”

“As much as possible we recommend dialoguing diplomatically about the religious freedom issues,” she explains on the line from Ottawa. “But we promote caution about statements from the Chinese government. Experience shows us that, despite public promises, their actions behind closed doors are often opposite.”

In bidding for the Olympics, senior officials from the Communist Party of China (CPC) made statements about using the Games as an opportunity to develop democratic principles and, in vague terms, spouted the rhetoric they hoped free nations wanted to hear. Yet, once it won the privilege of hosting the Games, China revoked the visas of Christian missionaries. Though mass arrests have decreased, China has continued to target house church leaders and those close to them in order to intimidate their congregants.

There’s also the spectre of Tibet on which the CPC, despite international condemnation, has refused to capitulate.

According to the EFC report, a secret document entitled Notice on Further Strengthening Marxist Atheism Research, Propaganda and Education was circulated in 2004. The document referred to Christianity and other religions as “superstitions” and accused them of being “the new trend of western hostile forces’ attempt to westernize and disintegrate China in the name of religion.”

Surprisingly, despite China’s fervour to polish its image to the world, even visiting nations had parameters placed on their religious freedoms during the Olympics. Athletes and their support staff were permitted to bring only one Bible per person into the country and chaplains were provided by the CPC’s state church program only. Foreign clergy were not permitted to travel as chaplains with their country’s athletes (despite this being a long-standing Olympic practice).

In prayer, a pastor leads two young women to accept Jesus.

David Wells of Delta, British Columbia, has been an official Olympic chaplain at two previous Games – Athens and Torino.

Although he says it is “unusual to go without the international component of the chaplaincy program,” he says it is within the Chinese government’s prerogative to do so.

“They have the freedom to do the chaplaincy program as they have . . . they are the hosts,” he told Faith Today. But Wells also laments that some of the finer points of the job description may have been lost in translation. “To serve the athletes effectively, sensitivity to their language and experience in the realm of international sports is important for a chaplain to have.” During the Games, chaplains from the five major world religions are traditionally called upon to help athletes, support staff, officials and volunteers with everything from bereavement to issues of emotional health.

Even though there are many documented cases of persecution, the political climate in China still makes room for forms of Christianity that fall outside the realm of the registered state church. The growth in this area has been linked by some to the over-the-top growth in the country’s economy and the need for a moral foundation to anchor the prosperity and productivity that have come by embracing capitalism.

In fact, several wealthy Chinese businessmen have become Christians and allowed their lives to be profiled openly in the Wall Street Journal (“In Search of . . . Something,” April 8, 2008). Zhao Xiao, a well-respected economist featured in the piece, has connections to Trinity Western University (TWU), a Christian university of 3,500 students in Langley, British Columbia.

Don Page, professor of leadership at TWU, travelled to China last November to meet with CEOs and business leaders as well as to speak to students at the state university in Tianjin. Page was there to do what, not long ago, seemed unthinkable. He was invited to discuss how Christ-centred lives form the strongest possible moral base for leadership and business practices.

“I spent two hours teaching students in a state university about Jesus Christ, the greatest leader of all time,” says Page. “I had the privilege of holding Him up as the greatest example we have of leadership . . . and I’m sure there would have been a party official in the audience.”

The links between business and Christianity are very strong in some corners of the mammoth country. Page refers to some 400 Motorola churches he learned about on his visit, where business people and factory workers worship and pray together. The same corporation church model is being adopted by many other companies from pharmaceutical manufacturers to makers of air conditioners.

The canyon-like gap between the way different groups of Christians are treated in China is a paradox with no clear solution. The social and political complexities make it hard to draw any general conclusions about fairness and justice.

The Chinese government forced house church pastor Cai Zhouhua to work 12- to 14-hour days manufacturing sports equipment for the Summer Games in Beijing.

Rev. William Wong, a member of the Toronto Chinese Evangelical Ministerial, notes that “Christians have a long history of not making trouble with the government” in China. Believers who take an interpersonal approach to evangelism and who don’t publicly offend the authorities are the most effective in today’s climate, says Wong. To underscore that conviction, the pastor – who estimates as many as ten percent of his church’s members travel continuously between Canada, China and Hong Kong – requested that the specific mission activities his congregants participate in not be part of this article.

“Sometimes we have to be shrewd as snakes but innocent like doves, as the Scriptures say,” Wong chuckles. “You have to play by the rules.” Wong also sees the trend of Chinese young people becoming highly educated in Canada, then returning to China as a key element in the slow shift in the foundational belief systems there.

Paul Marshall, a member of the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., thinktank, and author of Religious Freedom in the World, recently made similar statements in the National Post, noting that Christianity is becoming particularly popular among Chinese intellectuals.

He also noted that China is so large and complex it is difficult to get a clear measure of any one trend.

Many Chinese Christians living in China and here in Canada view the Olympics as an opportunity to affect change from within. They regard public condemnation of the government as an ineffective way to approach the issue of religious freedom.

Though the report Durston co-wrote makes some strong statements about the way Christians worshipping in house churches were treated in the lead-up to the Games, she commended ongoing dialogue. “Even though persecution has gotten worse since China’s successful Olympic bid, we don’t support a boycott,” she says. “We prefer to use the Games as a focal point.”

While Cai Zhouhua (and many others with similar convictions) served his time for illegally trafficking in Bibles, the Bible Society (a British ministry) recently printed 50,000 Gospel booklets (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) – all sporting the Olympic logo courtesy of the International Olympic Committee – at the Amity Printing Press in Nanjing, China. According to the society, more than 50 million Bibles have rolled off those same presses. So in a country where Christianity is both thriving and being persecuted and where a local individual can’t distribute Bibles but a foreign organization can, the growth of Christianity is more like a marathon winding its way through unpredictable streets than a straight 100-metre dash.

Jeff Dewsbury is a freelance writer in Langley, British Columbia.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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