How missionaries' attempts to evangelize at the Olympics were foiled.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Aug. 7 2008 6:49 AM

Let the God Games Begin

How missionaries' attempts to evangelize at the Olympics were foiled.

T-shirt. Click image to expand.
A patriotic T-shirt that appeared in China during the spring protests against the Olympic torch relay

On April 30, 100 days before the Olympics opening ceremonies, China's Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-chartered organization with oversight of the country's Catholics, issued an edict requiring all mainland dioceses to celebrate a Mass in support of a successful Olympics. But that was really just a formality: China's churches—government-registered and underground—have been praying for a successful Olympics for years.

Before and after China's bid for the 2008 Summer Games, supporters argued that hosting the Games would force the country to address human rights issues, among which were long-standing concerns about religious freedom on the mainland. Others looked at the Games as a prime opportunity to save souls.

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The number of China's Christians (estimates range from 30 million to 100 million) continues to grow, mostly as a result of indigenous efforts but also with the aid of thousands of foreign missionaries who have lived and worked in China as schoolteachers and other professionals. Though foreign missionaries have been illegal in China for decades (they are still strongly associated with colonialism and their midcentury resistance to China's Communist Party), these efforts have often gone undetected or, more often, were considered harmless and not worth the trouble of disrupting. (Under Chinese law, the missioner's offense is tightly defined as proselytizing outside government-sanctioned venues that would never license them in the first place. In the case of Protestants, proselytizing typically takes place in house churches, though it can take place anywhere face-to-face contact can be established.)

As recently as the spring of 2007, evangelical groups were planning an effort meant to include thousands of trained missionaries descending on China. However, in the course of the last year, several developments have damaged the prospects for the planned spiritual harvest.

Between April and June 2007, China expelled more than 100 Christian missionaries, several of whom had been living in China for at least 15 years. China's Foreign Ministry did not comment on the expulsion. But it has been widely assumed that the decision was related to the Olympics and may have been a strike against any potential on-the-ground infrastructure to support the Olympic missionary influx.

Next, unexpectedly tight visa and other Olympic-related security restrictions have rendered many mission efforts impractical or impossible, leaving congregations little choice but to pray from American churches, instead of from the Olympics themselves. (Meanwhile, the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes, unsatisfied with regulations about religion and the Games that, among other things, allow only chaplains selected by the Chinese government to minister in the Olympic Village, has asked former Olympians, including retired gold medalist swimmer Josh Davis, to serve as informal chaplains alongside athletes whom it supports in ministering to other athletes.)

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