With the election finally over, I'm slowly emerging from the bunker at my newspaper in Washington, D.C. I work for an editorial page, and while I don't strictly cover politics, obviously it has dominated the news for the last few months. I've been wanting to discuss something here for a while, but I'm just now getting around to it.
The week before the election, I got a brief respite from cataloging the minute-to-minute happenings of the 472 congressional elections. My editor, knowing I was interested in issues related to religious freedom, suggested I do a story on the 3rd Lausanne Congress that was just held in Capetown, South Africa. So I wrote it up.
The Congress was first organized by Billy Graham in 1974 and named after the town in Switzerland where it was held. The event brought together 2,700 Christians from more than 150 countries. The most recent Lausanne Congress was bigger than ever, according to the press release:
This Congress, perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church, drew 4,000 selected participants from 198 nations. Organizers extended its reach into over 650 GlobaLink sites in 91 countries and drew 100,000 unique visits to its web site from 185 countries during the week of the Congress.
The big news out of this year's congress was that China barred leaders of China's rapidly growing "house churches" from attending the conference. To their credit, both The New York Times and NPR both did stories on the Chinese authorities keeping House Church leaders from leaving the country. Both stories did good job of getting the contours of the religious freedom debate in China right, explaining the difference between "house churches" and the state-sponsored Christian churches. Even though I had the luxury of writing a column on the topic, I wrote it up (reasonably) straight. Here's how I handled it in my piece:
China has only three state-sanctioned Christian groups -- the China Christian Council, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
There is a palpable difference between the house church Christians and the state Christian churches, said Michael Cromartie, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"We went to China and met with those [state church] types. They were what you would expect a government religious leader to be, which is a totally government-controlled religious leader," Cromartie said.
"The idea of sending house church people who the government does not trust to be encouraged in the faith and refortified by going to a meeting of 4,000 evangelicals from around the world is probably appalling to the Chinese government," he said.
But interestingly enough, the Times and NPR articles were dated October 15 and October 14, respectively. That's before the conference even began. As far as I can tell, my column was just about the only mainstream report on how the congress responded to the absence of the Chinese religious leaders:
Some 4,000 evangelical Christians from around the world had planned to highlight China's burgeoning church on Oct. 18, the first full day of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Capetown, South Africa.
The 200 Chinese evangelicals selected to attend the Congress were the second largest national delegation at the conference, and, in anticipation of the event, they supplied the Congress's leadership with a special song for the occasion, "The Lord's Love for China."
When the special day arrived, however, the 4,000 voices of Lausanne sang the "The Lord's Love for China" next to 200 hundred empty seats.
Members of the Chinese delegation never left the airport after their government seized their passports and sent them home.
I also spoke to Lausanne leaders to get their perspective on the absence of the Chinese delegation and reported that Lausanne's internet uplink was hacked while the conference was going on. Organizers noted that there were other contributing factors to their internet problems, but a cyberattack certainly fits the M.O. of the Chinese government.
Now I can't brag that I'm some amazing shoe leather reporter for writing about all of this, because, man, did the religious press cover the heck out of what happened in Capetown (a small sampling of the coverage). I thought Christianity Today's online coverage in particular was good. I suppose that's why our own Sarah Pulliam, who works for that publication, was cognizant enough to mention the event in her post on China from yesterday.
But given the size of the event and the controversy, I'm really shocked that more secular and mainstream news outlets didn't cover this event much more extensively.
In particular, what happened here has a great deal of relevance to the flare ups from earlier this year over the Obama administration's alleged negligence regarding religious freedom issues. And the house church vs. state-sponsored church conflict in China speaks directly to the criticism the Obama administration has received for toning down their religious freedom rhetoric from "freedom of religion" to calling for "freedom of worship." (For what it's worth, Frank Lockwood offers up a defense of the administration on this point here.)
Regardless, the events at Lausanne speak to the bigger issue of religious freedom that I think is important to all Americans, not just the 4,000 evangelicals who hopped a plane to South Africa. I was able to put the congress in the broader context in my column, but regrettably not able to explore this theme at length.
Quite frankly, I was hoping for some back-up from my professional peers.
Speaking of which, you'll note in my article I also called the State Department to ask for a comment on the incident. To the extent that journalists serve as watchdogs, it would have been nice if enough journalists had called Foggy Bottom's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor so that they felt compelled to explain what they thought of the Chinese government's crackdown on house church leaders and how it relates to their efforts to promote religious freedom. Instead, it was probably pretty easy for the State Department to blow off my lone phone call on the matter, which is what exactly what they did.
If there was any good mainstream coverage that I missed, let me know. But all in all, I'm really disappointed the Lausanne Congress was so under covered.