During a March budget hearing, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) challenged Gary Locke, current U.S. Secretary of Commerce and President Obama's nominee for the next ambassador to China, to worship at an unregistered house church instead of a Three-Self Patriotic Movement state church in order to "publicly identify with the persecuted." Locke said he would consider it.

"It isn't worship—it's showing up and being there. I'm not asking the ambassador to change his faith. I'm asking him to identify and visit the persecuted, just like you visit people in prison. You visit people where they are. They thirst to have someone identified with the American government show up and be with them. And by doing that, you provide help and protection."

Frank Wolf, U.S. Congressman

"The U.S. ambassador should worship in a house church, especially if he is a Protestant Christian. If he is Catholic, he should seek out a so-called 'underground church.' Such actions would likely result in more media attention to religious persecution in China, and perhaps give hope to the persecuted. However, media attention would be fleeting. Moreover, such an act—even if done regularly—would be primarily symbolic, and U.S. international religious freedom policy has for too long been characterized by symbols rather than substance. What we should be asking the U.S. ambassador to China is what concrete programs he will initiate to convince the Chinese that religious freedom is in their interests. How will he ensure that U.S. religious freedom policy in China becomes more than words and symbols, as it has been under this administration?"

Thomas Farr, professor, Georgetown University

"If the Chinese government allows it, there should be no problem with the U.S. ambassador to China visiting a house church. Indeed, such visits demonstrate a mature bilateral relationship while signaling a stable and responsible China that is comfortable with its religious minorities."

Chris Seiple, president, Institute for Global Engagement

"It has been estimated that as many as 80 percent of China's Christians worship in unregistered churches. So if an ambassador wants to show support to China's Christians, it would be good if he or she recognized not only registered-church Christians, but those in unregistered churches as well. However, the Chinese government would no doubt take great offense at such a show of support, and it is hard to imagine the current administration spending goodwill capital with the Chinese government to show support for house-church Christians, in light of their other stated priorities and in light of the large amount of debt owed to China by the U.S."

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Todd Nettleton, spokesperson, Voice of the Martyrs

"Before deciding where to worship, the ambassador should consult with leaders of both registered and house churches, and then pray for discernment as to what decision will best advance the gospel and strengthen the witness of the church in China."

Galen Carey, director of government affairs, National Association of Evangelicals

"I think the most important consideration of the next U.S. ambassador to China should be: 'What actions of mine will most benefit the Chinese house church?' At present, I don't think an attempt by a senior U.S. diplomat to visit a house church in Beijing or elsewhere would be a good thing, because it would likely endanger the house church itself … I think a far more powerful form of protest would be for the ambassador to refuse to meet with anyone from the Three Self Patriotic Movement until freedom of worship is granted to Shouwang. I think all U.S. Christian organizations should be lobbying hard to stop any further hospitality to the Three Self Patriotic Movement or Catholic Patriotic Association officials in the U.S. until there is full worship freedom in China."

David Aikman, author, Jesus in Beijing

"The effect on the perceptions of Christianity within domestic society is likely to be unfavorable. The Chinese Christian population is a tiny minority in China, no more than 8 percent of the total, and official and unregistered churches still labor under the stigma of being a 'foreign' religion. The history of the modern era in China is framed by the humiliating defeat by the British in the 1840s Opium Wars. It was in the wake of military defeat that most foreign missionaries entered the country with the protection of foreign gunships. As a small percentage of the population, tying their fates directly to foreign international pressure plays into the hands of the regime's propaganda, which frequently warns of threats posed by 'foreign enemy religious forces' to China's sovereignty."

Carsten Vala, professor, Loyola University (Md.)

"Politics and religion do not, and should not, mix, in China or here. I know this is not a popular view among some, but it is the prudent view. In China, when Christianity and politics got mixed up in the 19th and 20th century, there was trouble for U.S. policy. The popular view toward Christianity also turned negative. Such will be the same today if the U.S., for whatever reason, seeks to interject religion into the relationship. Having the U.S. ambassador visit an 'underground' church would be counterproductive."

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Gordon H. Chang, professor of history, Stanford University

"Identification by an American government official would be the kiss of death for unregistered churches in China. For many reasons, some of them quite understandable, the leaders of China are afraid of any organized movement with connections to the outside, especially America. Though they have no political ambitions, Chinese Christians outside the officially sanctioned church have enough difficulty already; any perceived link to the American government will only further arouse the government's suspicion and ire. We should not add to the church's troubles by a well-meaning but counter-productive show of support."

G. Wright Doyle, Global China Center

Related Elsewhere:

Previous stories on international religious freedom include:

Why Beijing's Largest House Church Refuses to Stop Meeting Outdoors | Shouwang vows to continue showdown until Christmas in hopes of ending Achilles' heel of unregistered churches: government pressure on landlords. (April 26, 2011)
The United States Needs an Ambassador for Religious Freedom Now | The Obama administration must send a clear signal to Egypt and the Middle East that they must embrace religious freedom in full. (February 8, 2011)
Pew Forum Releases Landmark Survey of International Religious Freedom | 70 percent of the world lives in areas with high restrictions on religion, report says. (December 16, 2009)

Previous topics for discussion included faith healing and legal protection, whether Congress should change pastors' housing allowances, Christians should share sacred spaces, Christians are stingy, Christians should resist the TSA, Christians should ban Christmas carols with questionable theology, when life begins, whether Christians should denounce believers who vilify others, Christians must pray in public forums using Jesus' name, whether they have a responsibility to have children, whether churches should increase their 2011 operating budgets, a Protestant-less Supreme Court, Mother's Day worship, incorporating churches, whether evangelicals are doing a good job at racial integration, whether Christians should leave the American Medical Association, the most significant change in Christianity over the past decade, whether the Supreme Court should rule that memorial crosses are secular, multisite campuses vs. church plants, and whether Christians should fast during Ramadan with Muslims.

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