Some Chinese Christians see their invitation to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics as a new recognition of religion in officially atheist China, while others hope it means the world's most populous nation will learn to respect different global values - writes Francis Wong.
Fireworks and cheers opened the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing at the "Bird's Nest" stadium on 8 August, with many heads of state and members of royal families and other dignitaries, including selected religious leaders, attending. Hundreds of millions of people watched the event live on television.
Church leader Fu Xianwei, chairperson of the officially-approved "Three Self Patriotic Movement" who was invited to attend the opening ceremony, said on 7 August that China's hosting of the Games was a sign that the country was becoming more powerful.
"A stronger country, a prosperous church," noted Fu. "The fact that we Protestant leaders are invited to the opening ceremony means that Christianity is now more integrated into the society, and the government respects religions and society accepts us."
Among world leaders present were U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak.
The U.S.-based Christian news agency Compass Direct News reported, however, that Chinese police took an unofficial or "house" church leader Zhang Mingxuan, along with his wife Xie Fenlang and co-pastor Wu Jiang He, into custody at a police station in Hebei after a BBC journalist attempted to interview him on 4 August.
The agency said BBC journalist John Simpson phoned Zhang to request an interview, according to the procedure stipulated in a handbook given to journalists reporting on the Beijing Olympics. Zhang reportedly agreed to the interview, but he was arrested as Simpson travelled to meet him.
Back in Beijing, another official Chinese Protestant leader who was invited to the ceremony, Ji Jianhong, said, "The spirit of the Olympics is to promote peace and friendship through sports contests and we pastors are obliged to participate in the Games."
Ji, a co-chairperson of the advisory committee to the Three Self Patriotic Movement / China Christian Council, said, "We published a special edition of the Bible, as a blessing for the Beijing Olympics." The movement, which is part of the officially-sanctioned Protestant church, published 100 000 copies of special editions of the Four Gospels for the Games.
However, there were also reports of restrictions on religious activities before the Olympic Games. The U.S. based "China Aid Association" reported in late July that Chinese authorities had forced house church leaders to sign a covenant to halt church services during the Olympics.
The Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News said that "underground church clergy who work near Beijing have faced restrictions on their work in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games".
UCAN reported on 7 August that "quite a number of bishops and priests [near Beijing and] not affiliated with the government-sanctioned open church have been forbidden to administer sacraments or do pastoral work since late July."
The Hong Kong-based Christian Times newspaper said in an editorial in its edition dated 10 August that "the best Olympics [arena] is not at the stadiums, but at the mindset of Chinese people, to respect different cultural values … and to share the responsibility of global citizenship".
The opening ceremony officially started at 8 p.m. on 8/8/2008, as the number 8 is a lucky symbol in Chinese culture.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]