NEW YORK – Christian evangelist Luis Palau is encouraging Christians to bring their Bibles to the Summer Olympics in China, claiming that the Chinese government is "wide open" and will not stop visitors from bringing Scripture into the officially atheistic country.
"I have asked officially from people here and over there. Any person can go in there and take Bibles, as long as they're not selling them," Palau told The Christian Post in an interview on Thursday.
"If they're giving them away, they can take all the Bibles they want. And I think that's going to happen. And I think that's very valuable."
Palau's comments come after China persecution watchdogs criticized the Chinese government last November for listing the Bible as one of the banned items in the Olympic Village.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, however, clarified that China's law "will guarantee religious freedom during the Olympics," but not allow Bibles to be brought in for "distribution or propaganda," reported Agence France-Presse. According to the official, athletes, journalists, and tourists will be allowed to bring worship items, including the Bible, for personal use.
Palau, who was in New York City this week to promote his new book, A Friendly Dialogue Between An Atheist and A Christian, said he doesn't think Christians will face much opposition from the People's Republic of China during their stay there.
"I'm encouraging people to book their flights because it's going to be jammed. And to get a hotel and bed and breakfast because it's going to be jammed with people," he said.
"But they're going to be free, they're not going to be stopped to express the Gospel, to preach," he assured.
He added, "They were afraid that the athletes would start. Athletes are there to play and win, you know. But they may witness for Christ like some Chinese athletes do."
The Chinese government is known for its repressive religious policies, which prohibit worship outside state-approved venues and forbid proselytizing. It is not unusual to hear reports about Christians being detained and harassed by police for defying the regulations.
Palau, however, is more optimistic. He said that his Gospel message in China has never been censored, although many persecution watchdog groups note that his addresses have been in government-sanctioned churches.
Despite being very open about his future plans in China, one obstacle Palau said he did encounter was permission to hold an open-door evangelistic rally in China.
While he looks forward to such a rally in China by the time the Summer Olympics arrive in Beijing in July, Palau said that for now he will just have to wait for approval by Chinese officials.
"I believe you ask for permission, from my perspective as a foreigner coming to a foreign country," he explained.
"They have said to me, 'Be patient. Keep coming back. In China, we'd like to befriend a person, get to know them, trust them'... So, we're looking forward to it any day now."
The Argentina-born evangelist even joked that he has personal reasons for wanting to hold the rally in China soon.
"I said to one of the ministers ... 'You know, I can't wait forever. I'm getting old, you know? You’ve got to give me my chance.'"
If the rally is permitted in China, Palau said he plans to hold it in one of the major cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, or Hangzhou.
In the meantime, Palau will be promoting his book, which released this month in the United States, and preparing for his next festival to be held March 14-15 in Buenos Aires, Argentina .
Palau's book was first released in China in August 2006 under the title, Riverside Talks: A Friendly Dialogue Between An Atheist and A Christian. In the book, Palau and Zhao Qizheng, an atheist and former spokesman for Communist China's Cabinet, share their unique perspectives on the Bible, philosophy of religion, history and politics. It became a national best-seller in China and is the first-ever book between a Chinese diplomat and a Christian evangelist.