CAPE TOWN, South Africa-The Chinese government did its best to keep its delegation of registered and unregistered pastors from attending the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town. But at the October event in South Africa, a young woman from North Korea had the last word on repressive governments.
Eighteen-year-old Soo Kan spent 11 years in China after she and her family escaped from communist North Korea. Like many defectors who have made that trek, they took refuge for a time in a South Korean consulate until they were successfully granted asylum in South Korea. Soo Kan also lived during that time with a Chinese family, who she says "adopted" her. "They showed the love of God to me," said Soo Kan, eventually leading her to become a Christian.
With her straight, bobbed hair pulled back in a clip and wearing her school uniform, Soo Kan told her story in broken English before an audience of over 4,000 on the second evening of the once-a-decade Lausanne conference. Her father worked for Kim Jong Il, she said, until he fell out of favor with the North Korean leader, who recently named his younger son Kim Jong Un as his successor. That forced the family's flight from their home and a prolonged pilgrimage to the south. Over that time, Soo Kan's parents became Christians, she said, and her father, once imprisoned by the regime, eventually decided to return to North Korea: "He wanted to share the love of God he had received with his countrymen." But discovered by the North Korean regime, he landed in prison again in 2006-and disappeared.
"I have heard no word about my father, and in all probability he has been shot to death," she told the audience evenly.
Now studying in South Korea, Soo Kan said she hopes to attend a university and prepare herself to return to the north. Like her father, she wants to work for both political and spiritual change in her homeland, she said, concluding tearfully and receiving an extended standing ovation.
Soo Kan's comments highlighted an evening set to focus on the church in Asia-and planned before the Chinese church leaders, who were part of a delegation to the Lausanne Congress, themselves became the focus leading up to the event. Chinese authorities beginning in late September confiscated passports and refused departure from the mainland for about 230 Chinese delegates, plus a number of young volunteers. They were the second-largest delegation slated for the seven-day convention, which included over 4,000 delegates from 197 countries. Their absence left not only empty chairs but "deep disappointment," said executive chairman of the Lausanne Movement Doug Birdsall.
"Not having them here is like not having Brazil at the World Cup," said Henry Luke Orombi, honorary chairman of the African Host Committee and head of the Anglican Church of Uganda.
The presentation Oct. 18 that was to include some of the Chinese delegation instead was led by Chinese church leaders from Hong Kong. Morley Lee, general secretary of the Chinese Coordinating Center of World Evangelization, said Hong Kong delegates were "shocked" that their fellow Chinese participants were not allowed to join the congress, but he told the gathering: "They know, they know that all things work together for good."
Birdsall told reporters that organizers first learned "three to four weeks ago" that Chinese delegates might not be allowed freedom to travel when a Chinese student planning to attend the congress had his passport confiscated without explanation. Orombi said he had written to Chinese President Hu Jintao on behalf of the delegates, and as the congress got underway he said, "We are still hoping for an answer."
One possible answer came on Oct. 20, when Lausanne officials announced that internet communication for the event had been hacked. "We have tracked malicious attacks by millions of external hits coming from several locations," said Joseph Vijayam, technology chair for the event. The intruders affected not only internal communications but global links set up to 700 sites in 95 countries, and speculation focused on the Chinese but organizers would not assign blame: "We have a pretty strong indication, but one can never be absolutely certain, so we prefer not to share our suspicions," said Vijayam.
Estimates of the number of Christians in China top 60 million to 80 million, and Orombi said, "We want to think long term about how we can approach this-not as a 'touchy subject,' but intentionally, thoughtfully, and respectfully."
The emphasis on Asia highlighted the emerging theme of the Third Lausanne Congress: the rise of leadership in the church worldwide from Asia, Africa, and Latin America-or the "global south." Seventy percent of the delegates at Lausanne came from those places, reflecting the reality of the global church demographic. Those regions also host the largest numbers of unreached people: India's Dalits, or "untouchables," considered the largest unreached people group, alone number 650 million.
Another demographic organizers wanted to reach: young people. Selection committees sought to have at least 60 percent of participants under the age of 50-breathing new life into a movement that began in 1974 in Switzerland under the leadership of ailing evangelist Billy Graham, 92, and theologian John Stott, who is 89. Testimonies like Soo Kan's did that.