China Aid Association
Christian Groups Step Delicately in Sichuan
Relief Missions Cope
With Beijing’s Rules
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER
May 30, 2008
(CHENGDU, China – May 31, 2008) After the May 12 earthquake that devastated China’s Sichuan province, Jonathan Bright, a 30-year-old American teacher at a Christian school in South Korea, gathered disaster supplies and headed to the quake zone to help. He never made it.
Before his flight got under way from Beijing to Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, Mr. Bright dropped a card with references to scripture and details about a Christian radio station in the airplane’s restroom, drawing the attention of the crew. Chinese police boarded the plane and questioned him about his intentions before releasing him to take another flight to the quake zone if he wished. Mr. Bright decided to return home.
“They cared only because they thought I was trying to make new Christians,” he says.
In the wake of the disaster, China has opened its doors to outside aid in the form of money, supplies and volunteers. One caveat on the more than 160 million yuan ($23 million) that the government says has come in from religious groups, from inside and outside China: no missionary work.
Mr. Bright’s experience reflects the tensions and suspicions kindled by Christian aid to Chinese who are suffering in the quake’s aftermath. Communist Party leaders and evangelicals, long at odds over religious freedom, are now feeling out new terrain. Within the evangelical community itself, the unusual situation has raised questions about how closely to hew to Beijing’s strictures.
Franklin Graham, president and chief executive of the aid organization Samaritan’s Purse and son of evangelical pioneer Billy Graham, says he has no qualms about holding back on religious activity if it enables him to deliver aid to the quake victims.
“When people are dying, you demonstrate the love of God by just being there with them and responding,” he says. “This isn’t the time that you want to preach. There are opportunities for that later.”
When the quake struck, Mr. Graham was in China on an official visit with government religious-affairs officials and Chinese-sanctioned churches. He immediately promised $300,000 for the officially registered churches and used his access to begin negotiating with authorities for a much larger airlift of supplies. Mr. Graham says his was the first U.S. nongovernmental organization to land supplies in Chengdu.
Officials never explicitly told Mr. Graham that his organization couldn’t engage in evangelism, he says, but he “knew the ground rules” going in. “We never asked to preach in Sichuan,” he says. “We just said we are Christians.”
China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs says foreigners pursuing religious activities in China must abide by a set of rules, which include bans on religious brochures and proselytizing without permission, among other activities.
When Samaritan’s Purse launched a 747 filled with supplies from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Chengdu on May 23, the group was joined at a news conference by a representative of the Chinese embassy. The supplies, which included more than $1 million in tents and water-filtration systems, were distributed through the Chinese government and military after training sessions in how to use the equipment by Samaritan’s Purse staff.
Another large Christian charity organization working in Sichuan, Operation Blessing, says it never proselytizes anywhere in the world and has a longstanding relationship with the Chinese government.
Christian organizations that are distributing aid to quake victims through less official channels say they appreciate the efforts of the groups going the official route but that their work comes with fewer strings attached. Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based China Aid Association, says his group sent volunteers into China on Monday with 20 family-size tents. They plan to personally deliver the tents to the needy through their contacts at nonsanctioned Chinese churches in the area.
“We give out the tents and say, ‘Jesus loves you,'” says Mr. Fu. “We want to pray for them, comfort their hearts and give them counseling. What these victims need is holistic, not just physical needs of water and food.”
That can put his volunteers, and those from other unofficial Chinese churches, in danger. He says he has already heard reports of three Chinese Christian volunteers being detained by police for praying while delivering aid. The Sichuan religious-affairs bureau didn’t respond to questions on the matter.
Carl Moeller, the Los Angeles-based president of religious-freedom group Open Doors, says he thinks religion should transcend any political concerns.
“When Jesus said go out to the world and preach the gospel, he didn’t say just go to those places where you can get a visa,” he says. “To do evangelism in its purest sense is not about politics.”
Mr. Bright, the teacher who was taken off his flight to Chengdu, says that before he left China a friendly taxi driver in Beijing took him to a government agency collecting donations, where he dropped off his supplies.
“It seemed to be a direct answer to prayer,” he says.
–Juliet Ye contributed to this article.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at [email protected]
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Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
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