Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Beijing has prohibited a delegation of approximately 200 Protestant churches from travelling to Cape Town (South Africa) to attend the 3rd World Congress on Evangelization in Lausanne, which runs until October 25. They are all churches that refuse to become members of the Patriotic Three-Self Church, the religious organization headed by the State to gather together all Protestant denominations.
According to reports, in the last 2 months, police warned them not to attempt to attend the Congress and many of them were prevented from leaving even though they had regular visas for South Africa, while others were forcibly brought back home from airports. Some of the faithful had their passports confiscated; others have been threatened and put under surveillance. At least one representative from Inner Mongolia was arrested for having organized "illegal" religious activities.
Delegates yesterday sent an open letter denouncing the "serious violation of the Constitution" and "infringement of religious freedom of Chinese citizens." If someone is in Cape Town they can only participate in a personal capacity, not as a delegate of the church.
Julia Cameron, in charge of external relations for the Congress, told the South China Morning Post that she had asked Beijing to explain the absence of Chinese delegates, but received no reply.
It was to have been the first time that Chinese house churches participated at an international congress since 1949. Typically, these groups keep a low profile to avoid persecution and intimidation, just because they want to live free of official government interference.
The Lausanne Congress, held for the first time on the initiative of the preacher Billy Graham in Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1974, is one of the most important events of the recent history of Protestantism. The second Congress was held in Manila in 1989. Cape Town expects more than 2 thousand Protestant leaders from 200 countries to attend the gathering which will discuss everything, from evangelization to poverty, the spread of AIDS and persecution.
According to official figures there are 23 million Protestant Christians in China, but experts believe that number to be over 100 million because most of these communities refuse to register with the official state Christian organization.
Some delegates believe that Beijing does not want to be represented by either the Three-Self Church or the house churches. Even the official organization is boycotting the Congress, as it was only invited as an "observer". In fact, delegates have to adhere to the 1974Convention of Lausanne, the real manifesto of Protestant Christians.
Liu Peng, a scholar of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the official Chinese Christian Church, with its principles of "self-government," "self-foundation" and "self-propagation" can not sign documents with Foreign States, as it is not an autonomous entity independent of the Chinese state. He adds that it would be embarrassing for China to be represented by non-registered domestic churches, while its official Christian church was just an observer. Moreover, in this way the house church would have had a sort of official "recognition" with equal dignity to the official church.
Already in Manila, the seats for the 200 Chinese Protestant delegates were left empty. After 21 years, China still fails to accept the tens of millions of Chinese Christians and the Chinese seats are still empty.The Catholic Church has had similar experiences. John Paul II and Benedict XVI invited Chinese bishops to the Synods of 1998 and 2006, but in both cases, the government did not allow them to leave the country.