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The dawn of China's civil rights era

"The dawn of China's civil rights era" Continued...

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

First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wilmington, N.C., has worked with Ritchie's group, but pastor Ernie Thompson says the church first started a mission in Jiangyin, China, in 1897. The congregation closed the mission in 1951 under pressure from the newly empowered Communist government. More than 50 years later, an opportunity arose to construct a pastor's training center for registered churches in the same area. Thompson's congregation helped underwrite the project, along with other American churches.

According to a translated version of a Chinese news article celebrating the opening of the training center, the local Chinese "director for all recorded speech" said he hoped the center would help the registered church "become a model of patriotism, to build a harmonious society and promote economic development in Jiangyin City." Another Chinese news article said the center offered "office space" for TSPM.

And the project wasn't without problems: When the church sent delegates to China one year later, Thompson said they learned that the Chinese government had "rezoned" the new training center's property to use for other purposes. "The government has compensated the church there by providing property at the new site where the new church and training center will be built," Thompson said. He wasn't sure whether the government would pay for the new building.

Still, Thompson said his church is committed to continuing the work: "It looks to us as if there are good, faithful Christians working in both the registered and the unregistered churches."

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), a New York--based network of Christian organizations and denominations that includes Wycliffe Bible Translators, World Reformed Fellowship, and the Presbyterian Church in America, began meeting with registered church leaders in China in 2008.

Sylvia Soon of WEA says the effort has involved developing relationships with TSPM leaders, discussing needs, and voicing concerns. (Soon says the WEA doesn't fund projects in China, but connects church leaders to Christian organizations that might be able to help.)

Soon declined to describe the concerns that WEA has raised with TSPM leaders, saying the talks are private, but she says that the organization has expressed its support for unregistered churches. And she says the group also supports registered churches that preach the gospel: "With the official church in China, the believers there are no less our brothers and sisters than the unregistered churches."

Critics of TSPM acknowledge that some registered churches preach orthodox Christianity. David Aikman, a 23-year veteran Time magazine correspondent who for three years served as Beijing bureau chief, says some registered churches are evangelical. But Aikman, who wrote Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Regnery, 2003), said, "It's quite intolerable and inexcusable" for evangelical groups to support TSPM activities. Aikman cites as recent evidence of longstanding oppression the July report from Shouwang Church leaders showing that TSPM representatives arrived at detention centers to pressure church members to stop meeting.

The Shouwang leaders wrote: "Three-Self church personnel showed up at many police stations to persuade, 'educate' and even rebuke the imprisoned brothers and sisters in an attempt to get them to leave Shouwang Church and join one of the Three-Self churches or to ask us to unconditionally abandon our outdoor worship."

That report led ChinaAid, a U.S. advocacy group, to call for a boycott of TSPM activities, including the Bible exhibit scheduled for its U.S. tour starting in September with stops in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, and Charlotte-where it will be hosted at the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). A spokesman for BGEA said the ministry's representatives working on the exhibit weren't available for comment.

At the Beijing celebration of the Communist Party's anniversary, TSPM leader Cai Kui said the registered churches' vision is to "adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party as we always have, adhere to serving the overall interests of the Party and the government, adhere to the policy of independence and autonomy in religion, adhere to being of one heart with and on the same path as the Party . . . then we will certainly create a more brilliant tomorrow for China."

Shouwang Church leaders don't share that vision and say they will continue to insist on the right to meet at the indoor location they purchased over a year ago, saying that worship is the most important part of the Christian life. And though the church insists its goals aren't political, Aikman says the conflict has drawn a clear line: "This is the first bona fide civil rights movement in China since the Communist Party came to power in 1949."

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