Keeping China atheist

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Saturday, August 9, 2008

One of the great things about living in China, is that on the weekend, for example on Saturday morning, you never, ever get any Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses turning up on your doorstep trying to peddle some books.

And I congratulate the Chinese government on keeping it that way during the Games:

China suppresses religion in preparation for the Olympic Games

By Jim Coggins

THE SUMMER Olympic Games being held in Beijing, China next month are raising questions of freedom of religion in that country.

In recent years, Christian groups have often seen sporting events such as the Olympics as an opportunity for multicultural evangelism.

However, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's Religious Liberty Commission issued a report in June charging that the Chinese government has taken steps to eliminate "missionary activities" and that "the human rights situation appears to have worsened." This is in spite of promises made by Chinese officials when they were awarded the Games, that they would take steps to promote freedom, human rights and other Olympic ideals.

The EFC followed that report up July 28 with a news release and a public letter urging Canadian government leaders "to continue to engage the Chinese government on its human rights record in regard to freedom of religion when they travel to China."

The EFC news release specifically noted that "Olympic national teams have been denied the traditional practice of travelling with spiritual advisers from their own country" and that "Chinese religious minorities have experienced extra persecution in the lead up to the Games."


The Olympic Charter requires that religious services encompassing the five major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) be made available to Olympic athletes and other officials and staff of countries' Olympic teams. However, how those services are provided is left up to the organizing committee of the host country.

Some countries, such as European countries with a state church tradition, have adopted the practice of sending official chaplains with their teams.

In the past, other chaplains have been drawn from an informal international network that has developed over time. For instance, Dave Wells, a Pentecostal pastor from Alberta, got involved as a volunteer for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Through his hosting duties, he became acquainted with some of the chaplains, and as a result was invited to serve as a chaplain at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. That led to further invitations, including one to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Usually, the host Olympic committee draws on this international pool of chaplains and credentials them to provide religious services to athletes and other Olympic team officials. The chaplains are chosen to represent a broad range of religions, languages and cultures. They are often paid through the church or parachurch to which they belong. Wells's funding comes from friends and acquaintances who channel their contributions through the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC). In addition to the credentialed chaplains, the Religious Services Centre in the Olympic village often has a list of "on-call" religious leaders especially for minority religions and languages.

The officially certified chaplains plan religious worship services, are available for counseling and generally contribute to the social well-being of the athletes and officials in Olympic Village. A summer Olympic village usually hosts over 10,000 athletes and over 10,000 team officials, doctors, coaches and trainers. More athletes and officials may be billeted outside the village but are credentialed to have access to the Village, as are the chaplains.

The Beijing hosting committee has chosen to bypass the usual method and provide the required religious services through Chinese nationals, particularly the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). The TSPM was established shortly after the Communist takeover of China in 1949. It was intended to bring all Protestant and evangelical groups in China together into one body free from any ties to foreign religious bodies. As the only legally recognized Protestant body in China, it is tightly controlled by the Communist Party. It is not allowed to teach children or discuss issues such as the Second Coming or abortion.

Besides the TSPM, with about 16 million members, there is an unofficial House Church movement with two or three times as many members. It operates underneath the law and has been subject to persecution through arrests and confiscation of property. This persecution, the EFC suggests, has not lessened in anticipation of the Games, but has become more severe.

Even though they will not be credentialed as chaplains by the Beijing Olympic committee, some of the usual chaplains are going to the Olympics anyway. Wells, for instance, who has just been appointed General Superintendent of the PAOC, is going. He will be on an "on-call" list, but will not have the usual credentialed access to the Olympic Village.

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As a chaplain, Wells says he has always understood that he has to operate within "parameters" -- he is there by invitation to serve as a chaplain, and "proselytizing is frowned on." However, he adds that his position as "a committed Christian" is known and that in the past he has been free to communicate and offer spiritual care whenever he was approached. "You don't have to live in fear of who you are," he says.

Even though many athletes are very disciplined and focused on their sport, they are still human beings with spiritual and relational needs, says Wells. The Canadian team and other athletes know he is coming to Beijing and will be available. As in Canada, when people have a spiritual need, they usually approach someone they trust and have a prior relationship with, not necessarily the official church representatives.

Given the different situation in Beijing, Well says it is more important than ever to just "ride the wave" and be ready for whatever opportunities come.


There has also been debate about whether the Bible will be available at the Beijing Games. There were reports last year that those attending the games would not be allowed to bring Bibles. A Chinese official later said that those attending would be allowed to bring one Bible for "personal use."

However, it was announced in June that an agreement had been reached with the Chinese government and the United Bible Societies (including the Canadian Bible Society) to distribute copies of Scripture free of charge as has been done at other Olympics. These include 10,000 Chinese-English Bibles, 30,000 Chinese-English New Testaments and 50,000 tracts containing the four gospels.

All are being printed at the Amity Printing Company with the Bible Societies paying for the paper. Amity is the only company in China allowed to publish and distribute the Bible. Its capacity was recently doubled from six million to 12 million items per year. Its Bibles are only allowed to be distributed through the TSPM.

The 90,000 Scriptures printed for the Olympics will be available for free distribution at the Religious Services Centre in the Olympic Village and through TSPM churches in Beijing and some other cities where Olympic events will be held.

However, Bibles will not be available to the general public as has been the case at previous Olympics.

US-based evangelist Luis Palau, who has preached in TSPM churches, said in February that he had been assured those attending the games could "take all the Bibles they want" as long as they gave them away and did not try to sell them.

However, other observers were highly skeptical.

Jocelyn Durston, a policy analyst with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, says there has been "every indication" that attempts at evangelism "will not be tolerated."

There will be three parks away from the Olympic sites where protests will be allowed, including handing out leaflets, but protestors will have to give five days advance notice and obtain a government certificate. Anyone going to China for the purpose of evangelism simply wouldn't get a visa, said Durston.

The official Olympic website prohibits, without prior permission, "any kind of publicity, advertising, displays . . . banners, slogans, fliers, brochures or samples."

Indications of the Chinese government's approach are evident in the EFC report. It notes that in February 2007, the government implemented a policy called Typhoon No. 5, which expelled over 100 foreign Christians from China in the next six months, "thereby eliminating missionary activities in the year before the Olympic Games."

The report also lists hundreds of House Church leaders who have been arrested in a major crackdown since 2006.

The EFC report calls for the Canadian government to apply pressure to the Chinese government to do a number of things: release prisoners of conscience, provide fair trials to prisoners including allowing them access to lawyers and family members, allow media access to human rights cases, discontinue the use of torture, allow House Churches to operate freely and openly, allow foreign missionaries to enter China, and allow children free access to the Bible and Christian teaching.

A recent report by Amnesty International reinforces the EFC's assessment of human rights abuses in China, and agrees with the EFC's contention that things may get worse if the Chinese government is not pressured to change, says Durston.

However, the EFC is not just relying on government pressure to bring about the necessary change. The EFC's Religious Liberty Commission sends out monthly prayer alerts and participates in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, says Durston. "Prayer is a powerful tool."
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