China is gearing up for its "coming out party" – otherwise known as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing – expecting A-list guests that include U.S. President George W. Bush and Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg.
But it's not only who will be there but also who won't be there – if Beijing has its way – that's stirring up controversy and gaining international media attention.
Though notorious for human rights abuses, China has sought to present itself as a country worthy of being one of the world's top leaders through its Olympics appearance.
Despite its efforts to cover up its abuses, however – including those of religious freedom – many reports have surfaced about China's increasing crackdowns, such as those on Christian activities taking place outside of government-sanctioned churches.
Most house church meetings, baptism services and training meetings have had a Public Security Bureau (PSB) present, according to Open Doors' contacts in China.
And many house church pastors in Beijing have been visited and "requested" to leave the city before the Games begins.
"These crackdowns on Chinese house church believers and others is not unexpected as the communist government of China tries to put its best foot forward to the world in preparing for the Olympics," commented Dr. Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA.
Open Doors, a ministry which supports the persecuted church, compiled a report of tightening Chinese security of Christian activities since the last quarter of 2006 to 2007.
The ministry noted that the Chinese authorities are pursuing a "softer approach" in order to avoid attracting attention from the global community on its religious freedom abuses.
Foreign missionaries are also the target of Beijing's effort to tightening its control over religion.
Earlier this summer, over 100 foreign missionaries were expelled from the country and some were even blacklisted. The massive expulsion was the largest of its kind since 1954 after the communist government took power in 1949.
Surprisingly, however, Chinese authorities this past week released a prominent Beijing house church leader who was imprisoned for three years for "illegally" printing Christian literature including the Bible. Pastor Cai Zhuohua said he was forced to make soccer balls 10-12 hours a day for the 2008 Beijing Olympics while in jail, according to the Chinese persecution ministry China Aid.
Although he has been released, Cai still needs to report to the PSB office once a month.
"He feels he won't have any freedom even after his release," Cai's mother, who is also a dedicated house church leader, told China Aid.
Bob Fu, the president of CAA and former co-worker of Cai, commented, "Since pastor has already served unjustified three years sentence, to continue to restrict his freedom of movement is a violation of Chinese own law.
"We urge the international community to continue to press the worsening situation on religious freedom and human rights in China," added Fu.
Christian human rights organizations such as U.K.-based Release International and Open Doors have been organizing campaigns to press for religious freedom in China.
Release International recently launched a petition to urge the Chinese government to repeal restrictive legislation and allow Christians to worship freely.
"The continuing arrest of Christians, detention of leaders, and their imprisonment on contrived charges stand in stark contrast to the more politically and socially developed nation that the government of China wishes to portray," the statement read.
The human rights organization added that the majority of Christians who choose to practice their faith outside of the officially sanctioned church is an indication of the "heavy-handed regulation and control" of their religious activity in state controlled churches.
Meanwhile, Open Doors has organized a prayer campaign for Christians in the West to pray at least one minute each day at 8 p.m. Beijing time (8 a.m. EDT). The "One Minute/One Year/One Country" campaign began Aug. 8, 2007 and will go to Aug. 8, 2008 – the day the Beijing Games begin.
"We need to pray for those who are in the line of fire during the next year," urged Moeller. "And we also pledge to keep Christians in the West aware of what the Chinese government is doing regarding the persecution of believers – we can't keep silent!"
China has an estimated up to 100 million Chinese Christians who worship outside of the registered churches.