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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In two days, a massive global evangelical gathering will begin in Cape Town, South Africa. But more than 200 Chinese delegates may not be able to go. Chinese officials have taken a number of steps to keep the delegates from leaving the country. And some fear Beijing is moving to exert control over underground Christians, as NPRs Louisa Lim reports from Beijing.

(Soundbite of singing)

LOUISA LIM: Christianity in China is flourishing, with tens of millions of Christians openly worshipping. Many gather in private assemblies - house churches like this one - rather than in the official government church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

The authorities have largely turned a blind eye in the past. But when a grouping of house churches decided to send some 200 delegates to the Lausanne Congress, the government stepped in. Church elder Abraham Liu Guan tried to leave on Sunday for the meeting. He was warned by the authorities not to meet NPR, but in a phone interview he described what happened at Beijing Airport customs.�

Mr. ABRAHAM LIU GUAN (Church Elder): (Through translator) The border defense people said theyd received a notice from the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security. It said our participation in this meeting threatened state security, and they should not let us pass customs.

LIM: So far, at least twelve people have been turned back, some of their passports confiscated. One delegate has been detained. Several have been prevented from leaving their homes. For months officials have been warning almost all the pastors invited not to attend, telling them the meeting is anti-China. For some there have already been consequences.�

Pastor XING JINGFU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: They stopped my church from meeting and from preaching, Pastor Xing Jingfu from Changsha in Hunan told NPR. They openly said it was because of the Lausanne Congress. If we meet again, theyll arrest us.

Chinas foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu issued a statement to NPR. It accuses the Lausanne organizers of not issuing an official invitation to Chinas state-controlled church, and of having secret communications with Christians from private assemblies. This is part of the statement.

Unidentified Man: This act has openly challenged Chinas principle of an independent, autonomous, self-governing church. It is a flagrant interference in Chinas religious affairs.

The Lausanne organizers say theres been a misunderstanding and they did invite the official church as an observer. Before the weekend, Lausanne chairman Doug Birdsall said how Chinese pastors reacted to warnings would be up to them.

Mr. DOUG BIRDSALL (Chairman, Lausanne Congress): There are times, obviously, when there are matters of conscience for which people take a stand. Most any right that we have someone has battled for it at some time. The apostle Paul gave advice and encouragement to followers of Christ to be faithful to Christ and also to be faithful to their nations.

LIM: That Chinas underground Christians could get together to choose delegates and raise more than a million dollars to cover their costs would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that level of coordination is unsettling to Beijing, especially given the explosive growth in Christianity. Pastor Ezra Jin from Zion Church in Beijing says even if he's blocked from going to Cape Town, it won't affect the larger trend.

Pastor EZRA JIN (Zion Church): (Through translator) I think Lausanne could play a positive role for Chinese Christians. For a short time, there might be pressure or there might be a price to pay. But that will pass quickly.�

Let our blood and sweat drive Chinas Christian revival, he prays with a visitor. Beijings hard line on this congress comes as the authorities were showing signs of tolerating house churches. It clearly undermines Beijings claims to allow freedom of religion. Its not yet clear how far Beijing will go. But some fear this could be the start of a new wave of persecution against Chinas underground Christians.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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