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China’s summer Olympics: ‘The world is watching’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared in The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention`, on the Web at www.thealabamabaptist.org. This story is the first installment of a three-part series of articles about China that Baptist Press is publishing in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing. Baptist Press coverage of the Olympics will continue through Aug. 25.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–On 08/08/08 at eight minutes past 8 p.m., the summer Olympics will begin in Beijing, China, fully in tune with Chinese tradition to the tiniest detail, even to its kickoff time.

Eight is the number of prosperity and fortune in China. And in a lot of ways, the Olympics have brought just that.

“It’s a matter of national pride that they are able to host this worldwide event. To them, in many ways, it is a coming out party,” says Joyce Glover, a representative of the International Mission Board’s East Asia region. “It’s showing the world they can do it, that they can meet global standards.”

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China’s “coming out” is from a 20th century rocked with turbulence.

During that time, China staggered backward, beset by 40 years of war and political turmoil. And after the Communists seized power in 1949, the country groaned under another 40 years of calamitous government policies and crushing brutality, according to U.S. News & World Report.

On the heels of that unrest, some have dubbed the current era “China’s century,” a title the communist nation is aiming to solidify.

“This is not a simple sports event at all. Its meaning surpasses the importance of sports itself,” Tu Mingde of the Chinese Olympic Committee told CNN.

Yasuo Fukuda, the prime minister of Japan, agrees. “The Olympics must succeed,” he told CNN. He said Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics is much like Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 games, which he said marked Japan’s emergence on the world stage after its defeat in World War II. “The world is watching.”

Anticipating that additional scrutiny, China is putting some elbow grease into its image.

After two decades of reform, the government is setting the stage for the games, spending $40 billion to remake its subways, roads and image, in addition to building new stadiums for the 500,000-plus foreign visitors Beijing expects to see.

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The games, however, also shine a spotlight on issues that have troubled China for some time — namely, human rights and religious freedom.

Members of the U.S. Congress said May 1 that China had disgraced itself in advance of the Olympics. The comments were made at a press conference the day before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included China on a list of the world’s worst persecutors of religious adherents.

USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea said the Chinese government still harasses and detains Christians, Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetan Buddhists. In previous months, Olympic torch relays around the world have been met with protests mainly centering on China’s treatment of Tibet.

These issues, in addition to drawing protests, set an interesting stage for Christians hoping to use the games as a ministry opportunity.

“There is nothing illegal about being a Christian in China. You’re not breaking any law by being able to share the Gospel with someone,” Glover said. “But they do not want you to stand on a street corner and evangelize.”

Conflicting reports have circulated regarding how many Bibles travelers will be allowed to bring into China. “Bringing your own Bible shouldn’t be a problem. Bringing two Bibles shouldn’t be a problem. But bringing a whole box of Bibles would be a different story,” said Lynn Yarbrough, an Alabama native who teaches in China.

Bibles are available in China through bookstores that are part of government-registered churches, but standing on the street corner handing them out won’t be allowed, Yarbrough said. At this point, there is an uncertainty among Christian organizations about exactly what will be allowed.

In spite of this uncertainty, efforts to show God’s love during the Olympics are going strong. The website waytotheworld.com has provided Christians a number of ways to volunteer.

Woman’s Missionary Union SBC also is coordinating volunteer efforts using approved materials that include topics such as athletes’ stories of faith. The volunteers will be engaging people in the city through acts of service, clowning and traditional Olympics activities such as pin trading.
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Some names have been changed for security reasons. Alice Elmore and Grace Thornton write for The Alabama Baptist.