- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

They worked the crowds at the Olympic Games in Athens, Sydney and Atlanta. And, even though China outlaws what they do, they will be on the ground next summer in Beijing as well.

Christian mission groups from around the world plan to quietly defy the Chinese ban on foreign missionaries and send thousands of volunteer evangelists to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Many mission workers are traveling through China as tourists to learn their way around the area and conduct prayer walks intended to spiritually prepare the region for the Gospel.

Just before the games begin next summer, several Christian groups plan to rally in an Asian nation that they will not name, then head out in small teams to Olympic sites and beyond.

“They are going to have many thousands of people planning to travel around in different parts of China,” said the Rev. Johnny Li, minister at large for Open Doors, an advocacy group for Christians worldwide who are persecuted because of their faith.

In anticipation of a crush of volunteers, Mr. Li said, a Thailand missions group has produced a video encouraging collaboration among all the Christian outreach efforts expected at the games.

Unique opportunity

Christians regularly evangelize at major sporting events, but the Beijing Olympics offer an opening like no other, in a communist country that conservative Christians have long reviled.

Citing safety concerns, religious organizers are revealing few specifics of their plans or aren’t commenting at all. But many are expected to put on cultural and sports events — which China allows — with the goal of talking about faith one-on-one with the people they meet.

“This is going to be a time when visas are pretty easy to get,” said Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, which also helps Christians who are persecuted abroad. “So if you want to go, this is the time to do it.”

From far and wide

The Southern Baptists are mobilizing thousands of volunteers for what it terms “a spiritual harvest unlike any other,” through humanitarian work, sports clinics, first-aid sites and other projects. The denomination is bringing volunteers to China now for orientation trips.

Youth With A Mission, or YWAM, an international Christian ministry prominent in Olympic outreach, is planning a “2008 Olympics Discipleship Training School” in Brazil next year, according to its Web site, then will send volunteers to the games.

A spokeswoman for Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, a globally known evangelical group, said she could not comment because of security concerns. Athletes in Action has offices in Asia and has organized sport demonstrations at previous Olympics. The ministry’s Web site said its Korean “Halleluiah” martial arts team attended the Athens Games in 2004.

“With a draw like the Olympics, we just pray our ‘forces’ will be so large that we will be able to form many relationships,” said Mark Taylor of Awaken Generation, a ministry for college-age Christians based in Florida. The group plans to send evangelism teams of eight to 12 persons across China during the competition.

Perils to Chinese

Advocates for Chinese Christians say the danger for these foreign volunteers is minimal. Christians who live in China are often able to evangelize privately while working as English teachers, humanitarian workers or in the business world. At worst, Olympic missionaries could be expelled from the country; Chinese officials likely wouldn’t risk anything harsher with the whole world watching. But the peril for Chinese Christians who work with the foreign groups or evangelize on their own is considerable, analysts say.

The only Chinese Christian groups allowed to operate legally in the country are the Catholic Patriotic Association, the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Millions more Chinese Christians have risked imprisonment and worse by joining the underground “house church” network that is independent of the three groups.

No one knows the exact number of Christians in China, although analysts say the faith is spreading dramatically and estimate that the figure could exceed 100 million. The Chinese government says that count is inflated.

Faithful to tradition

Asked by the Associated Press for comment, the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee noted that it plans to follow Olympic tradition and build a religious service center in the Olympic village. It also will advise athletes in other Olympic cities about the available worship services.

However, the committee referred questions about evangelization to the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which did not respond to a request for comment.

David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine and author of “Jesus in Beijing,” said Chinese Christians think the Olympics will bring them badly needed recognition at home and abroad, and they plan to evangelize despite the dangers.

On a trip to China four years ago, Mr. Aikman said, he saw a “hilarious” T-shirt for sale that symbolized Christian hopes for the 2008 Olympic Games: It had a photo of Tiananmen Square filled with sheep.

“No communist apparatchik,” Mr. Aikman said, “would have a clue about what it meant.”

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