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Pastor finds freedom in China


ICC Note: While this pastor didn’t encounter any problems during his visit to China he doesn’t know what the aftermath of his visit might do for the Christians there. Religious freedom is not defined by only allowing people to worship if they attend a registered church as opposed to a house church. Many pastors have been used by the Chinese governement to hide their religious freedom abuses. Pastor James Hensel is only the latest in a long string.

1/4/07 China For full story go to…. ( St. Petersburg Times ) – China is a country where foreign missionaries have been unwelcome – and often unsafe – since the Communists took power in 1949.

But a local church group has turned that tradition on its head this fall, sending a delegation to openly build churches in a nation where Christians have often been imprisoned or harassed for practicing their faith.

Pastor James Hensel of the Christian Life Assembly of God said his missionary group – which included his wife, Fran, daughter Christa, son Jonathan, and members of theirs and several other Florida congregations – encountered no problems during the September trip.

“It was amazing to me, the personal spiritual liberty and freedom I felt,” Hensel said recently. “The individuals we were with in China were individuals of real prayer.”

Their church has been at the forefront of a bold effort by Pentecostal churches in Southwest Florida to test new Chinese laws on religious freedom.

The Florida congregations have raised around $1.5 million to build 150 churches and train pastors in mainland China , a place where the unauthorized practice of Christianity, whether by foreigners or locals, can result in a jail sentence.

Government approval

Church officials said the effort has received the official blessing of the Chinese government.

“Our objective is to reach the people who have never had an opportunity to recognize Christ as their savior,” said Pastor Glen Lambert of the First Assembly Ministries in Fort Myers . “It’s very special, because they are a closed country. But they are allowing us to build churches that are registered.”

Experts describe the effort by Florida churches as a highly unusual and potentially risky gambit. In effect, the Assembly of God congregations are bringing into the open missionary activities that used to be practiced covertly, in hopes of creating a reality on the ground that will be safe from harassment.

“The government swings back and forth between discouraging or forbidding such things and permitting them,” said Daniel Bays , a professor of missionary history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids , Mich. , in the summer. “So these people might have a perfectly good trip, or they might be surprised by some more restrictions that weren’t announced in advance.”

Since early 2005, observers say the Chinese government has pursued a two-track policy on religion, providing new freedom for officially recognized Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Taoist and Buddhist congregations to practice their faith, but disrupting and imprisoning members of underground “house churches.”

But in practice, the Chinese government has continued to prevent “foreign infiltration” and arrest Christians and members of other groups who practice outside that legal framework, the report said.

The group journeyed 30 hours from Florida to the province of Wuhan , where local government officials barred them from staying in the rural village with their Chinese Christian hosts. So they stayed at a Holiday Inn.

“As a foreigner, I had the liberty to give someone a Bible, because it was a gift,” Hensel said. “But to stand out on the street corner and just distribute Bibles that would have been problematic.”

Restrictions placed on Chinese Christians are far stricter, he said, and the group had no contact with members of illegal “house churches.”

“From what I understand, as long as the Chinese are within a (registered) church building, they are free to worship and sing and pray,” Hensel said. “The problem is when they step out of that building.”

Proselytizing, either by Chinese or foreign Christians, is strictly prohibited.

But experts say China ‘s new regulations on religious practice are applied unevenly, and could change.

“Chinese officials claim the new regulations safeguard religious freedom through the rule of law, but the intentional vagueness of the regulations allows for continued repression of disfavored individuals or groups,” wrote Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, based in New York , in a report on China .