In June, two Chinese nationals were kidnapped and killed by the Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan. Conservative Muslim Pakistan is familiar with Chinese workers living in their midst; however, it is not as familiar with Chinese Christian missionaries—which is what these two victims were.
In fact, not even the Chinese government is familiar with the clandestine activities of the missionaries who call China home.
The Underground Church in China Is Sending Missionaries Abroad
Missionaries to Pakistan
Meng Lisi and Li Zinging were in Quetta, Pakistan, when they were kidnapped. The city is temporarily home to numerous Chinese workers who are there to work in the region on a “new Silk Road” project to connect Asia and Europe, according to BBC News. However, Meng and Li were there under the guise of teaching Mandarin.
Li’s mother, Mrs. Liu, is questioning the Chinese government’s response to her son’s kidnapping. She asks why Beijing didn’t ask the Pakistani government to hold off an attack on IS-held territory south of Quetta when they knew Li and Meng were in IS’s possession. Instead of answering her questions, however, authorities are now investigating the family. Mrs. Liu is also a Christian who belongs to a house church in China.
Bob Fu, leader of the watchdog group China Aid, says the crack down on Christians is coming straight from the very top of the government: President Xi Jinping himself. According to Fu, “He has been worse than any leader since Chairman Mao.”
The Chinese Advantage
Yet the crack down apparently has not deterred the underground church from sending missionaries to other countries—including ones as volatile as Pakistan. In fact, the historic persecution and consequent move of the church “underground” in China might actually point to an unintended blessing for Chinese missionaries.
Pastor Danny Lee says Chinese missionaries have little trouble getting into nations some western missionaries have difficulty reaching. Places like Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. “They let them straight through. The last thing they would think [a Chinese person could be] is a missionary,” Lee told BBC News. Lee is the director of Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) in the United Kingdom. BTJ began in the 1920s out of a vision of Chinese Christians to “evangelize the unreached peoples from eastern provinces of China, westwards towards Jerusalem.”
Missionaries to Iraq
The South China Morning Post recently brought attention to a Chinese missionary couple living in Iraq who have been there for over a year. “Michael” and “Christy” (names are changed for security reasons) live in northern Iraq in a guarded compound for women and children who have fled IS. In this area affected by war and terrorism, Michael says, “I actually feel safer here [than in China].”
As the article explains, it’s hard to know how many Chinese missionaries are working overseas, as they “often pose as businessmen or teachers for travel purposes.” However, academics and house church leaders estimate there could be as many as 2,000.
According to Christy, what she and her husband are doing is not rare. “There are many [other mainland Chinese Christians] out there who love Christ relentlessly and dedicate their lives to God’s kingdom.”
Michael and Christy are working with Yazidi refugees who have been displaced by IS. The couple is helping widows make a living by sewing garments and they also give English lessons to local children, many of whom are orphans or the children of single mothers.
While Christians will recognize Michael and Christy’s work as being inspired by James 1:27, Michael says they are really careful to respect the Yazidi culture and not to preach openly to them. Rather, their approach is one of planting seeds and demonstrating their faith through living among and helping the people—something they are doubtless used to doing in their home country.
It’s Still Dangerous—But Perhaps Chinese Christians Are Better Prepared Than Most
As Li and Meng’s story highlights, Chinese missionaries do face danger abroad, even if they some nations are easy for them to enter. Many people question the Chinese government’s desire to protect its citizens abroad—especially if it is discovered they are there for missions work. Following the incident with Li and Meng in Pakistan, officials there have tightened control on the visas they offer Chinese nationals. They have since sent 11 people home who were identified as missionaries.
“In China, our faith has been heavily suppressed,” Michael says. “When faith is hard-earned, it is more genuine and sincere.” It makes one wonder: Perhaps the Chinese government has inadvertently groomed the underground church to be really effective missionaries.