American Christians need to consider more prayer for China, rather than focusing on taking social action, says the leader of a Colorado-based Christian group that aids registered churches in China.
"Taking (social) action is a temptation that even I face," said China Partner president, Erik Burklin, pointing out that Americans can change China if they concentrate on addressing the spiritual needs of Chinese churches, especially in rural sectors.
Burklin made his comment in light of China president Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House in April, and the subsequent demands that Bush administration address religious freedom and human rights with the Chinese leader.
"Pressuring Hu is not a good way to address religious freedom in China. When you do this you are politicizing things," said Burklin. "These are issues that cannot be solved politically because we work with the spiritual kingdom (of God). So, prayer must be made."
China Partner has long worked with the official churches, aiding the establishment of seminaries and libraries in major cities for almost two decades.
Burklin pointed out that more than human rights and religious freedom, the level of theological education and training in China is a paramount concern.
More recently, Burklin says, the organization will focus its attention at working in registered churches and government-approved Bible training centers in rural areas.
"The number one thing lacking (in rural churches) is that the facilities are so poor. They are meeting in an old building that dates back a hundred years," he said of two registered rural house churches, that he visited in Jiangxi province, where his German grandfather once worked as a missionary.
The exact number of Protestant Christians in China’s rural sectors remains unknown, but foreign observers have placed the figures between 40-70 million, of which about 10 million are registered with the government. Only registered churches are allowed to operate, but under state regulations.
Church wishing to register are required to have, a permanent place and name, existing congregation, proper organization, qualified pastor, proper constitution such as a statement of faith, and listed source of funds for operation.
When asked how the Jiangxi churches were able to register, Burklin replied that the churches fulfilled their basic requirements and that government’s regulations were meant to guard against cults and misguided teachings that persist especially in rural sectors.
Religious freedom activists have long alleged the government have used its tough policy on cults as an excuse to crack down on legitimate underground protestant house churches. Others have accused the government of using the registration process as a means to trick house churches to come out of hiding.
Last June, a group of underground Christians attempting to register Guangxi province said they were arrested after authorities summoned them to finish the final steps of the application process. They had arrived with their paperwork completed and notarized when police arrested them on the spot.
Burklin said that though they may have been abuses in enforcing the regulations, the number of registered churches have increased.
The China Partner president said that those in the West often ignore the achievements of government-sanctioned churches such as the improved quality of professors, libraries, and theological education resources at China’s handful of seminaries.
"There is a need for more theological resources and books for the training of (Christian) leaders in China," says Burklin. "We have always shipped, in legally, from Hong Kong theological study books for training."
He added that foreign observers should carefully note that the Chinese government’s perception on the qualification of registered churches may differ from Western views.
"I think Americans need to know more about China. You have to travel there yourself," said Burklin. "A lot of people get information from elsewhere, or have been to China only once. They say they are experts rather then paying a personal visit themselves."
In Washington, D.C., Tuesday, human rights activists and dissidents from China were invited to participate in a discussion panel on freedom in China at the Hudson Institute, a foreign affairs think-tank.
Various human rights monitors continue to report the harrassment and detainment of Christians refusing to register with the official churches, though official reports continue to maintain that security forces only target dangerous cults, such as the 'Eastern Lightning' movement.