Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Thy Kingdom Come . . .

Risky Road: China's Missionaries Follow Beijing West

BBC News

When so-called Islamic State announced on 8 June that it had killed a Chinese man and woman in their mid-twenties in Pakistan's most volatile province, many would have assumed they were two of the thousands of workers that Beijing has sent to the country in the last few years.

China is investing more than $55bn (£43bn) in Pakistan, a key beneficiary of its grand plan to connect Asia and Europe with a new Silk Road paid for by Beijing.  Such an ambitious project involves risk, and China is building major infrastructure projects in Balochistan, a Pakistani province home to a long-running separatist insurgency and an array of militant and jihadist groups.

Meng Lisi and Li Xinheng

But Meng Lisi and Li Xinheng were not there to work on Chinese-funded projects.  They were in the provincial capital, Quetta, on a clandestine mission: to spread the word of Christianity in the unlikeliest and most dangerous of places in conservative Muslim Pakistan.

Their story draws attention to an unintended and often overlooked by-product of China's aggressive drive to develop new trading routes and carve out influence across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Hundreds and possibly even thousands of the country's growing cadre of Christian missionaries are along for the ride too - even if Beijing doesn't want them there. . . .

After armed men masquerading as policemen kidnapped the pair in Quetta on 24 May, the Pakistani military launched a three-day operation in a region south of the city called Mastung, targeting fighters allegedly linked to IS.  It is in Mastung that IS later said it had carried out the killings . . .    

The car Meng Lisi and Li Xinheng were kidnapped in
The vehicle used to kidnap Meng Lisi and Li Xinheng

But incidents like the killings in Pakistan present a tricky dilemma for Chinese authorities. As a self-declared atheist government, news of Chinese Christian missionaries getting into trouble abroad is embarrassing. But at the same time, Beijing needs to show it can protect its citizens as it goes global.

As Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion in China at Purdue University, puts it: "They thought Christianity was a western religion imported into China, so how can you export Christianity from China?  This is new and the Chinese authorities are still struggling to figure out what to do with this."

When Meng Lisi and Li Xinhen were abducted in Quetta, they were first reported to have been working at a language school run by a South Korean.  It was only after they were killed that Pakistani authorities accused the pair of being preachers who had misused business visas.

Two Koreans were detained by Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency, and another 11 Chinese believed to be part of the missionary group were deported.  Locals in Jinnah Town, a wealthy area of Quetta where the language centre was based, said the group, while distinctly visible, kept a low profile.  They travelled around in rickshaws without security and stayed in a simple hostel in the centre of the city.  "Sometimes I saw them singing and playing guitars," a local garbage collector said.

In Kharotabad, a very conservative area in Quetta's west home to Pashtun tribes and Afghan refugees, some of the Chinese women went door-to-door speaking with women about Christianity.  One boy said he overheard them saying "we are all sinners", and that they distributed leaflets, rings and bracelets. Another said he saw three women who spoke some Urdu and Pashto, and were "doing something about Christianity".  He said his mother asked them if they were Chinese, and "they said yes".

In the 1940s, a movement began among Christians in eastern China to bring the gospel westwards - in the direction of Jerusalem.  Evangelists travelled to China's western provinces but when Mao Zedong proclaimed the communist People's Republic of China in 1949, ushering in a repressive era for Christians, they settled there and the "Back to Jerusalem" movement lay dormant for decades.

In the early 2000s, coinciding with China's emergence onto the global stage as a major power, the movement revived and Chinese missionaries began travelling out to what some evangelists call the "10/40 Window" - a zone between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator that stretches from West Africa to South East Asia and is home to the least-Christian countries.

This zone overlaps significantly with the new Silk Road that China is trying to promote and in the last few years, as Chinese workers have gone overseas to these countries in droves, hidden among them have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands of missionaries, according to members of the movement.

In countries like Iran, Iraq or Pakistan, Chinese missionaries have little trouble getting in, says Pastor Danny Lee, the director of Back to Jerusalem in the UK.  "They let them straight through. They last thing they would think [a Chinese person could be] is a missionary," he said.  The movement's ambitious goal, Pastor Lee says, is to eventually have 100,000 Chinese missionaries serving across 22 countries in the 10/40 zone.  "Many of them have already left and are serving in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Burma and many other places as well," he said.  And violence like that seen in Quetta does not appear to put them off.

A young Chinese Christian couple sent to northern Iraq as missionaries told the South China Morning Post after the Pakistan killings that the incident was a reminder that they needed to be careful and sensitive in their work.  But they said they still intended to stay there indefinitely, despite the risks. "I actually feel safer here," 25-year-old Michael said, referring to the repression faced by underground churches in China.  Pastor Lee says Back to Jerusalem missionaries know the risks when they go abroad, and accept them. "They feel this is their calling and purpose and the plan that God has for them."

Since the killings came to light, Pakistani authorities have vowed to better regulate the inflow of Chinese nationals to Pakistan.  Militants have targeted Chinese nationals before but the attention the case received appears to have triggered significant concern among top-level officials about implications for relations with China.  In Quetta, Chinese individuals could occasionally be seen on the streets before the May kidnapping but since then they have vanished.

A Pakistani Naval personnel stands guard beside a ship carrying containers during the opening of a trade project in Gwadar port, some 700 kms west of Karachi on November 13, 2016
China is connecting the port of Gwadar, in Pakistan's south, with Kashgar, in China's west

In the port of Gwadar, the centrepiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, frequent attacks by separatist insurgents have denied Chinese workers the freedom of unguarded movement on the streets, reporters there say. They remain in secure compounds and move under heavy security escort.
Professor Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political and security analyst, said that Chinese and Pakistani officials would have robustly discussed the Quetta case behind closed doors.  "The likeliest outcome would be a combined set of procedures on both sides to ensure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Indeed, China has continued to stress that it and Pakistan are "all-weather strategic partners".  But Beijing knows that as more and more Chinese missionaries follow the new Silk Road, other cases like this are bound to occur.  On 9 June, the day after IS announced the killing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to a journalist.  "You asked about the risk in the building of the Belt and Road," she said. "I shall say that going global comes with risks."

Reporting by the BBC's Kevin Ponniah in London and M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad, BBC Chinese's Yashan Zhao in Hong Kong and BBC Urdu's Muhammad Kazim in Quetta

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