WASHINGTON – Christian religious freedom experts consider China's proposal to put Bibles in hotels for the 2008 Beijing Olympics a superficial effort to clean up its religious freedom image.
"China seems to be contemplating more cosmetic changes to make itself look good during the brief period of the Olympics," commented Dr. Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom and at the Claremont Institute, on Wednesday.
"What it needs is genuine change to allow its people to worship, meet and organize freely."
Last week, a high official of China's officially sanctioned Catholic organization told Chinese media that he wants Bibles in hotel rooms for the upcoming Games.
"A large number of foreign athletes and tourists will swarm into Beijing for the Games, a majority of whom have religious belief, and providing Bibles at hotels will meet their religious needs," said Liu Banyan, vice-president of the China Patriotic Catholic Association, to the Xingu news agency, according to Reuters.
"This service can help clear up foreigners' misunderstandings of China in the area of religion," he added.
Although experts have mainly described the proposal as a "P.R. campaign" or "window dressing," they still remain hopeful that the availability of Bibles will spread beyond hotels and the Olympics to the hands of some 400 million believers.
"What we hope for is that the Bible will be freely available to all of China's citizens, whether they are members of a registered church, an unregistered house church or simply curious seekers," said Todd Nettleton, director of media development for Voice of the Martyrs, U.S.A.
China only recognizes registered churches and considers unregistered house church worship illegal. One of the main arguments that a church gives for refusing to register is the belief that God should be the head of the church and not the government.
The central province of Henan has the worst persecution of Christians in China, according to a report by China Aid Association, with at least 823 known arrests of pastors and believers and 11 raids from July 2005 to May 2006.
Recently, 34 house church leaders from Henan were arrested during a Bible study gathering where they were interrogated for almost a day and then released.
Bob Fu, president of CAA, said he considers the idea of placing Bibles in Chinese hotels a "positive step to accommodate the spiritual needs of foreigners." But he hopes to see true steps of solid progress on religious freedom by China making Bibles available after the Olympics and in all of the hotels in China.
The Secretary of State designated China as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for severe religious freedom violations for the eighth straight year last November. CPC designation is the worst religious freedom status for a country and can lead to sanctions.