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Petar Kujundzic/Reuters/Landov

The dawn of China's civil rights era

China | Government clashes with a prominent house church are putting religious freedom to the test, just as friendly U.S. churches and prominent ministries plan to welcome a state-sponsored Bible exhibit on U.S. tour

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

In a vast concert hall at the upscale Century Theatre in Beijing, a June 11 celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party came from a striking source: leaders of Chinese churches.

Officials from the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC) organized the celebration and concert for more than 1,700 Chinese pastors, lay leaders, and government officials. The pair of government agencies oversees China's countrywide network of registered churches-the only churches legally recognized by the Chinese government.

Standing in front of a giant red flag dotted with white doves, TSPM official Cai Kui summarized church-state relations: "In the past 90 years, the Chinese Communist Party . . . has never stopped caring about and helping Chinese Christianity."

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Across town, a few dozen members of Beijing's largest unregistered church were preparing for the prospect of arrest. Christians from Shouwang Church-a Beijing house church with nearly 1,000 members-were facing their ninth Sunday of attempting to worship outdoors. (Church leaders called the outdoor meetings in April after they said government officials blocked access to the church's indoor facility.)

By the next morning, police detained at least 14 men and women approaching the outdoor plaza for worship. Officers released the church members by midnight, but the pattern continued: By mid-July, police arrested at least 400 Shouwang members attempting to worship outdoors. Dozens remained under informal house arrest, blocked from leaving their homes on Sunday mornings (see "Counting the cost," May 7, 2011).

The conflict represents an unprecedented challenge by Chinese Christians to Chinese officials, and neither side shows signs of relenting. But the showdown highlights another element in the complicated dynamic for Christians in China: the pressure to officially register churches that will operate under government rule.

Shouwang leaders have refused to register and join the TSPM network, citing objections to government oversight of the church. In late June, Shouwang leaders reported that TSPM representatives arrived at detention centers and asked church members to leave the church or abandon outdoor worship.

That prompted at least one U.S.-based evangelical group to call for a boycott of TSPM activities-particularly a TSPM-sponsored Bible exhibit coming this fall to four U.S. locations, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C.

But other evangelical groups say the complicated dynamic in China requires a more realistic outlook: They say officially registered churches include genuine believers who often need as much support as Christians in churches that remain officially illegal.

The Three-Self movement began shortly after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. The government-initiated effort promoted the idea of churches pursuing three "selfs": self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. But Communist officials-who also insisted that churches cut ties with foreign missionaries-maintained control over the TSPM leadership.

Though government officials now allow some foreign mission work, they still oversee the TSPM and require that churches register with the government and join the TSPM network. Reports vary on what that oversight means: Some foreign workers say that pastors in some registered churches freely preach biblical Christianity. In other regions, they say that the government restricts activities like Sunday school and outdoor evangelism.

The TSPM constitution makes clear the group's goal is to foster patriotism and devotion to China: "The aim of this organization is to lead Christians to love the nation and the church . . . and enable the church to adapt to the socialist society." The group's first duty: "Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Government, to unite all Chinese Christians to deeply love our socialist homeland and abide by its Constitution, laws, regulations and policies."

Many congregations, like Shouwang, refuse to register, objecting to government oversight. In a June 14 open letter, Shouwang leaders wrote that the congregation is "a house church that exalts only Jesus Christ as Lord: regardless of whether it is today or some time in the future, [we will] never join any non-church government entity."

Other Chinese churches have joined the TSPM network, and some evangelical groups have worked with the registered churches: They say those churches include genuine believers with many of the same needs as Christians in unregistered congregations, including a dire need for seminary-trained leadership.

The Outreach Foundation-a Tennessee-based group that connects Presbyterian churches to foreign mission projects-works with registered churches in five Chinese provinces. The group helps with Bible schools and seminaries, provides scholarships and books for seminary students, and conducts a week-long English camp for church leaders.

Jeff Ritchie, associate director for mission, says working with registered churches has allowed the group to operate openly in the country. And he says the teaching he's heard in registered churches is "very orthodox. . . . Even more so than some of our own American Christians."

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