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How to treat tyranny

Broad evangelical coalition urges political pressure on behalf of their beleaguered brothers, but some evangelicals support business as usual and lobby to protect Beijing's MFN status

When Vice President Al Gore returned from China with a fistful of commercial contracts, his former colleague and the top-ranking Democrat in the House, Richard Gephardt, came out in opposition to the Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status with China that makes such multi-billion-dollar deals possible.

While House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a splash with Chinese leaders one week after the vice president's trip, his number-two man, Majority Leader Dick Armey, announced he may not vote for MFN again. The speaker delivered a letter to President Jiang Zemin--signed by 65 Republican and Democratic members of Congress--critical of the government's "Strike Hard" campaign against unregistered Christians, but then attended a state-sponsored church Easter morning while in Shanghai.

The nation of contradictions, as sinologists like to call mainland China, is producing a world of them right inside the Beltway when it comes to formulating American foreign policy. Politicians of the left and right are abandoning colleagues and other traditional allies to take sides leading up to this summer's vote on extending China's MFN status. The free-trade policy is threatened by China's abysmal human-rights record and, in particular, its recent treatment of Chinese Christians.

Christian groups, and particularly those who represent evangelicals, are proving to be no less fractious when it comes to helping the cause of China's beleaguered Christians. Some evangelicals want to use the MFN debate to press the Chinese government, but others are advocating business as usual: a pro-trade policy that has done little to further the cause of the underground church. Their split is particularly noteworthy when Americans from widely divergent stripes--from establishment columnists like A.M. Rosenthal to consumer agitators like Ralph Nader--are taking notice of the persecution of China's Christians and forming a line to condemn it.

In early March a coalition led by the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family launched a campaign to elevate the importance of the MFN vote as a tool for changing China's approach to religious liberty. Led by FRC president Gary Bauer, the coalition plans to hard-sell members of Congress into voting against MFN.

The campaign has broad appeal. An open letter to Vice President Gore appearing as a full-page ad in recent Sunday papers was signed by Evangelicals for Social Action president Ron Sider as well as Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed; by Democrat intellectuals like Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and John Dilulio along with Republicans Phyllis Schlafly and Jeffrey Bell; and by Roman Catholic priests Robert Sirico and Richard John Neuhaus as well as Protestant ministers D. James Kennedy, a Presbyterian, and Donald Wildmon, a Methodist.

In response, a coalition of Christian ministries based at Wheaton College issued a March 27 position paper warning that the "anti-China rhetoric that is already accompanying the present MFN campaign will have serious negative consequences for the family of God in China." The position paper was put out by the China Service Coordinating Office, an umbrella group for other umbrella agencies with an interest in China. They include the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association, World Evangelical Fellowship, the Chinese Coordination Center of World Evangelism, China Horizon, and the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center. Brent Fulton, who directs both the CSCO and the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College, drafted the paper.

The paper says a poll of "several dozen" Christian groups shows "that most believe a change in China's MFN status would have negative consequences for their work." Those consequences include closed doors to cultural and other exchanges, economic reverberations for Christians in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and "instability" for all Chinese people. The paper faults "prominent Christian leaders, who see in the MFN debate an opportunity to pressure the Chinese government into bettering its human-rights record." The poll came in the form of an internet conference. Roughly a third of 60 participants volunteered their views on the MFN debate.

Two groups belonging to CSCO are members of the National Association of Evangelicals, also based in Wheaton, Ill. Last year the NAE was a key organization lobbying members of Congress to pay more attention to the persecution of Christians worldwide. Its widely circulated Statement of Conscience calls for the "public acknowledgement of today's widespread and mounting anti-Christian persecution." It also pledged that its member organizations would "end our silence in the face of the suffering of all those persecuted for their religious faith." China is the first country mentioned by name as a perpetrator of persecution in the NAE statement.

Both the NAE and CSCO's membership see no inconsistency in their statements. "In no way do I oppose speaking out on persecution," Mr. Fulton told WORLD. "But we need to think through what is going to work in a particular country. China does not respond well to confrontation." The NAE's Washington office spokesman, Rich Cizik, said his group opposes singling out the Chinese government and favors legislation that would "broadly define the problem of persecution" with a special White House adviser on religious liberty, changes in U.S. immigration rules, and "a more selective focus on trade sanctions." He said NAE president Don Argue declined signing the open letter to the vice president.

World Evangelical Fellowship, another member of CSCO, sponsored last September's International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. But publicizing persecution when it comes to China, according to WEF spokesman Dwight Gibson, is different: "You can't take what worked with Soviet Jews; it won't work in China." Although his group is a member of CSCO's advisory council, Mr. Gibson said he did not see the CSCO paper before it went out. Regarding the negative consequences for the work of Christian groups in China should MFN be revoked, he said, "I would have a problem in saying the future of Christianity in China depends on the rise or fall of MFN."

"It's odd and unfortunate--now that we have a good chance of putting some pressure on the Chinese government to grant religious freedoms--that among our own religious community there would be this schism in the ranks," said Steven Mosher, an expert on China with the Claremont Institute currently working with Human Life International to support orphanages in China. "Anyone active in China knows how intense the persecution has become," he continued. "Knowing that, how can you ignore it?"

Mr. Fulton's paper complained that, after Western press exposure last year of the deplorable conditions of Chinese orphanages, access for Christians to those facilities was ended. Mr. Mosher said, "If they were active in Shanghai then a door or two may have closed. I think you have to do both: criticize and shout from the rooftops that the government is persecuting Christians and, at the same time, evangelize. There is a certain amount of tension, but you cannot do one without the other."

Mr. Fulton also serves on a task force for the Coalition of Christian Colleges, part of its effort to launch a Chinese studies program in the fall of 1998. For groups like the Coalition and the members of CSCO, access to China and liaison with believers there is paramount. Marge Bernbaum of the Coalition says Christian colleges face a unique dilemma: wanting to prepare their students for "the Pacific Century" by placing them in Chinese studies programs now but being forced to play by the Communist government's rules in order to get them there.

Steven Snyder, president of International Christian Concern, is critical of the CSCO approach and says Christian ministries should be careful of the price of working in Communist-led China. "Do we continue to do business with a criminal just so that we can have access to our Christian friends?" he said. "Human lives are important. But equally important is maintaining a standard of justice and righteousness."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.