The Sordid Origins of the Olympic Bible “Ban”

This morning I received an email from my colleague Kenneth Tan, editor of Shanghaiist, asking whether I had heard about the reports that Beijing had added the Bible to a list of items that Olympic athletes were prohibited from bringing to China in 2008. Indeed, I had: I looked into it on Friday – for about five minutes – and quickly determined that it was utterly false. At the time, I chose not to write about it because I’m not a big fan of fanning a bad story; but now that Kenneth has mentioned it on shanghaiist, and a US Senator is making an idiot of himself complaining about it, well, I might as well jump in, too.

Here’s the deal. The English-language report claiming the Bible Ban was published by something called the Catholic News Agency [CNA]. But CNA didn’t report the story; it didn’t even try to follow-up on the facts. Instead, it cribbed the entire story from “reporting” done by La Gazzetta dello Sport – a newspaper devoted to – yes – sports. So, in its report on the Bible Ban, La Gazzetta claims that the list of prohibited items includes “materiale promozionale usato per attività religiosa o politica.” Translated into English (thanks to my college Italian), that means “materials used for the promotion of religious or political activity.”

And from that, la Gazzetta infers the Bible.

Mind you, La Gazzetta’s report never quotes anything mentioning the Bible. It just infers the Bible from other quotes.

In fact, neither La Gazzetta nor CNA actually cites a source for the quotes. La Gazzetta cites “la lista degli oggetti” [the list of prohibited objects]. CNA apes La Gazzetta and claims a “list of prohibited objects.” But where is this list? I’ve searched and combed the Beijing Olympic Committee site – and there’s no such list on it. However, what I did find is a page entitled “Entry and Exit: Entry.” After scrolling down to the bottom, I found this entry:

Note: Each traveller is recommended to take no more than one Bible into China.

Just to be clear: That’s not a ban. That’s not a prohibition. That’s a recommendation.

So where, then, did La Gazzetta find the text prohibiting “materiale promozionale usato per attività religiosa o politica?” I suppose I could write and ask, but in the spirit of La Gazzetta, I will instead infer. And I infer that it’s a poor – perhaps, doctored (charitably, a paraphrase) – translation of this English sentence from the “Exit and Entry: Entry” page cited above:

Any printed material, film, tapes that are ‘detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and ethics’ are also forbidden to bring into China.

[if someone knows otherwise, please contact me and I’ll post a correction]

Anyway, the Italian report ran on October 13. The Catholic News Agency report ran on November 2 (see Kenneth Tan’s shanghaiist entry for info on the shaky foundations of Catholic News Agency). I heard about it on the 2nd, and decided not to write about it. However, over the weekend I became aware that there was quite a bit of noise on the right-wing Catholic – and, later, evangelical – blogs (find them yourself – no links from me).

Finally, yesterday, the story began to show up in the mainstream media – and the reaction in Beijing was swift and angry. The ever-excellent South China Morning Post contacted someone at BOCOG, who replied:

“These reports are nothing but blatant lies … Bibles and religious scriptures of the major faiths brought by athletes into the Olympic village are allowed, as are places of worship within the Olympic Village. This is the same as in all other Olympiads.”

And that, my friends, is the truth. Like it or not.

To its utter discredit, Catholic News Agency has neither printed a correction or a retraction. Instead, yesterday, it printed this:

.- Last week CNA published a report from the Italian daily “La Gazzetta dello Sport” stating that Bibles will not be allowed into the Olympic Village at the upcoming Olympic Games. Since then, CNA has learned that a contradictory set of policies has been put in place regarding the possession of the Bible at the international sporting event.Making a slight change to its total ban on religious items, the Chinese Olympic Committee has decided, “devotional objects” will be allowed in compliance with Chinese “freedom of religion” laws, but “religious objects meant to propagate a cult” will not be permitted.

That is, instead of offering a correction and moving on, CNA blames its false report (which has become a minor international incident) on the Chinese Olympic Committee for issuing a “contradictory set of policies.” In my experience, that’s an utterly new approach to dodging a correction; in effect, CNA is saying: “I messed up because you confused me.

Casual readers of CNA’s second paragraph of explanation might be excused for inferring that the agency is quoting an actual regulation. After all, quotes are used. But, once again, CNA avoids citing its sources. So, once again, I have to infer. But this time, at least, the inference is fairly easy: CNA is likely paraphrasing (without citation) an AP story that includes an interview with Li Zhanjun, director of the Olympics Media Center in Beijing. The story references the “Entry and Exit: Entry” procedures that I mentioned above, before going into this:

However, the policy does not apply to Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has been declared a cult by the Chinese government and banned. China has cracked down hard on followers of the sect, who the U.S. State Department has said face arrest, detention and even possible torture and abuse.

“We don’t recognize it because it’s a cult. So Falun Gong texts, Falun Gong activities in China are forbidden,” Li said. “Foreigners who come to China must respect and abide by the laws of China.”

I am not going to go into the Falun Gong question here (nor defend the government’s relations with it). Instead, I’ll simply state that this quote has nothing to do with a supposed Bible ban. And, as much as CNA tries to wave its hands and point in other directions, there’s no mistaking what happened here: CNA got the story totally wrong.

I imagine that this post will generate a whole new round of email accusing me of being an apologist for China’s religious policies. I am not. As much as anyone, I have documented those policies – history and contemporary reality – and I make no apology for them. But as I’ve said on this blog and elsewhere: the cause of religious freedom in China is not served by pretending that the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution are still in place. Yes, there are abuses and persecution – but to believe or pretend that most Chinese religious believers exist in a state of perpetual 1975-like persecution is to deny reality. It serves nobody – except those who project it.

Two quick, final items.

First, the Beijing Olympic Committee’s approach to serving the religious needs of Olympic athletes and spectators has been well documented in the mainstream Catholic media, most notably here and here.

Second, earlier this year I did a lengthy blog post on the publication and availability of Bibles in China. Find it here.

Now, back to my otherwise scheduled writing.

[Update 11/10: The really great Black and White Cat blog has a very good post pointing out that the mythological “prohibited list” for athletes also includes a ban on cups. Yes, cups. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice that on my first or second pass, but I’m deeply grateful for Black and White Cat for taking care of it for me. Anyway, find the post here.]


[UPDATE 11/14]

Enter Francesco Liello, the Beijing-based Italian journalist responsible for the October 13 report in La Gazzetta dello Sport that set off the Bible ban rumors. Last Friday, with little notice, Liello published a letter with the Catholic News Agency, that defends his “reporting” on this issue.

Notably, in his letter Liello neither apologizes for, retracts, or corrects his original story. Instead, he defends it against accusations that his article was the result of a misunderstanding at a press briefing. Mr. Liello’s basic tack is to claim that he understood the press briefing better than the people giving it (unless otherwise noted, all Liello quotes are from the above cited letter to Catholic New Agency).

According to Mr. Liello, he first became aware of the ban when he came across:

… a sheet of paper came attached to the appendix of the dossier that was distributed during the second “World Press Briefing.”

Again, according to Mr. Liello, the title of the sheet of paper is:

Items Prohibited and Restricted in Olympic Venues (For Accredited Personnel)

Now, as for the precise text of what was, apparently, prohibited, Mr. Liello writes:

In the paragraph: “1. Items Prohibited”, Number (7) reads: “Pamphlets and materials used for any religious or political activity or display.”

From this, Mr. Liello derives his story:

I believe that when there is a reference to religious activity, the Bible is fully included in this. And moreover under that same [rule] even a Cross on the chest could be regarded as forbidden material.

However, note that BOCOG’s prohibition on religious and political activity is almost identical to Rule 51, section 3, of the Olympic Charter [titled: Advertising, Demonstrations, Propaganda]:

No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.

Mr. Liello’s articles and letter don’t mention this Charter provision. Whatever the case, if one follows his logic, then the International Olympic Committee bans Bibles at all Olympic games – not just the Beijing games in 2008. Which, of course, it doesn’t.

True, the BOCOG text includes the verb “activity,” but that doesn’t enter into the discussion. According to his letter, the day after he received the list of prohibited items, BOCOG revised it:

The next day, a reviewed version arrived under the title “For Media Personnel at Venues” (and not for Accredited media, as it was in the original version.)

Number (7) is listed as (8) and now forbids: “Promotional materials used for any religious or political activity.”

Upon receiving this revised text, Mr. Liello finally asked for a clarification:

To the question of how the organizers understand “Promotional materials,” the person responsible for security said he was not in a position to respond, referring us to the Chinese legislation. Therefore, he did not clarify if the Bible could be regarded as promotional material.

Fair enough, but on the same day as he sent his letter to Catholic News Agency, Liello published a follow-up article in La Gazzetta dello Sport, where he makes a sort of logical deduction from the lack of a response from BOCOG:

The article … referred to an official document presented by BOCOG (the Beijing Organizing Committee), in which it clearly states, in paragraph 7, that materials promoting religious or political activities are strictly prohibited. And the Bible is certainly religious material.

It certainly is. But whether or not it is the sort of religious material intended to be banned by BOCOG is something that can only be answered by BOCOG.

6 thoughts on “The Sordid Origins of the Olympic Bible “Ban”

  1. Two questions…

    1. Why do they “recommend” only bringing in no more than one Bible? – per your “Note: Each traveller is recommended to take no more than one Bible into China.”

    2. What will happen if someone does bring in more than one Bible?

  2. Hi Tim –

    Good questions.

    1. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think that’s a polite way of saying – don’t use the Olympics as your excuse to come to China and proselytize. A number of US evangelical groups have announced that they are training teams of people to evangelize during the Olympics. No surprise, the Chinese government takes this as an affront, if not an outright insult: Christianity is growing at a breakneck speed throughout China without the help of American evangelicals.

    2. Again, I don’t know. But the first thing to keep in mind is that – in my experience – your luggage is far more likely to be searched in a US airport than at a Chinese one (including international flights). That said, my guess is that – if your baggage IS searched – two or three or even four or five Bibles won’t make a difference. However, a suitcase full of Bibles is probably going to land you in quarantine with a return ticket to wherever you came from.

    I can’t emphasize this enough: there is nothing taboo about Bibles in China. This comes as a surprise to people who have been reared believing – or wanting to believe – that the Bible is a forbidden text here. It’s not. Not even close.

  3. Thanks for telling people some pieces of reality.

    I came across the CNA piece sometime last week and left a comment something like “What total codswallop!” and didn’t think about going back there again.

    The other piece of news, that Senator Graham should actually fall into the trap and complain about this to the Chinese ambassador, is very telling about the IQ (or if not then honesty/moral integrity) of these US politicians at the highest level.

    Your notion in above answer to Tim of people “wanting to believe” is perhaps very true – I’ve come to believe that many people in the West are getting addicted to such anti-China stories like drugs – so much that they’d curse back if someone tells them some truth!

    – local Chinese in Shanghai

  4. Thanks for your helping to expose this one. I am an evangelical Christian from the UK, but have been deeply saddened and upset by the way this false report has just added fuel to the fire of people’s attitude and approach to China. That barely a single religious blog or news service has retracted their stories, let alone apologised, is plain wrong. This is not helping the church in China, either unregistered nor registered congregations. Many of the latter are longing to leave behind the past and would like their Christian brothers and sisters in the west to do the same. Yet many western agencies working in China are still looking through the lens of the 1960’s and 70’s and refuse to approach things differently.

  5. Adam, Thanks for the great article. You’ve quite clearly summarized what happened in this case of sloppy reporting! When I first this story, I emailed the U.S. Olympic Committee to find out what they knew. Here is their response:

    We have received confirmation from both the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Organizing Committee that Bible and other religious materials will be permitted in the Athletes Village for personal use. The news reports that the Beijing Organizing Committee was considering a prohibition were completely incorrect and stemmed from a miscommunication between a journalist form Italy and a representative of the organizing committee. In addition, there will be an area in the Athletes village where athletes, coaches and officials can worship – as is always the case at the Olympic Games.

    I was really surprised when I read the CNA article because two years ago, I met the pastor of the church that will be used as the ‘house of worship’ for the olympic village, and he was really excited about the opportunity for his church to serve the athletes. He told me that they were planning to have Bibles available in many different languages to hand out to athletes from all over the world.

    So for those athletes and spectators who come from around the world, bring your Bible to China without hesitation or restraint. As Adam correctly pointed out, there will be no search of your luggage and there are Chinese Bibles available for sale, which have been printed in China without restriction, in many locations in Beijing if you want to purchase one to give to a friend.

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