A Chinese Christian holds a Bible standing outside the largest Chinese church in the world: the Three Self church which seats 5,000 people, in Hangzhou city.
A Chinese Christian holds a Bible, standing outside the largest Chinese church in the world: the state-sponsored Three-Self Patriotic Movement church in Hangzhou city, which seats 5,000 people.

China’s drive to develop new trading routes to the West and beyond comes with an unintended and often overlooked by-product: Chinese Christian missionaries, who are putting the self-proclaimed atheistic country in a difficult spot, according to the BBC.

The latest example is the story of two young Chinese who travelled to Pakistan as language teachers. Meng Lisi, 26, and Lee Zingyang, 24, went missing in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, on 24 May. IS claimed responsibility for their abduction and deaths on 8 June.

After they were killed, the Pakistani authorities accused them of being preachers who had misused business visas. In the aftermath, the South Korean who set up the language school where the two taught, Juan Won-seo, was ordered to leave the country, as well as 11 Chinese citizens who were said to also be part of the missionary group.

The incident was uncomfortable for China’s government. Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion in China at Purdue University in the USA, told the BBC: “[The Chinese authorities] 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.”

Beijing needs to be seen as able protect its citizens as it goes global, with Chinese entrepreneurs, workers and students travelling to and settling in Pakistan and other countries. An increasing number of Chinese have travelled to Quetta, as part of the $57bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which aims to re-establish a flourishing Silk Road between the two countries and beyond.

Knock-on effects

China was quick to say that, while the Chinese pair’s murders was an “atrocity” and “appalling”, “it cannot drive a wedge between China and Pakistan, nor will the construction of the CPEC be disrupted”.

Meanwhile, Li’s mother says that her phone is now being monitored and that the family is under investigation. It is also reported that the Chinese government has since increased the pressure on Christians in China, detaining at least four preachers from church groups in the province of Zhejiang, on China’s eastern coast and one of the country’s Christian centres.

Pakistan is a majority-Muslim country and ranks as number four on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Pakistani authorities have vowed to better regulate the inflow of Chinese nationals to Pakistan. China itself is at no. 39 on the same List. Open Doors estimates that there are about 97 million Christians in China, about 7 per cent of the population.