The world will be watching - and not just the games. When Beijing was named host of the 2008 Olympics, some Christians were outraged. Is it morally right to hold the Olympics in a country notorious for violating basic religious freedoms and human rights? Randy Alcorn, the author of "Safely Home," a new novel about the persecuted church in China, says, "Ethically speaking, it was a poor decision, but it will put China under the greatest world scrutiny it's been under in modern times."
Alcorn is the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM), a nonprofit organization devoted to helping the unreached, the unfed, the unclothed and the unborn - in addition to unsupported Christians who face persecution. All of "Safely Home's" royalties will go to assisting persecuted Christians and spreading the gospel in their homelands. "I wanted to make this my gift to the Lord and the suffering church," Alcorn explains.
"So should a country that violates human rights in such dramatic ways be rewarded by the global community by being given the Olympics?" asks Alcorn. "No. It sends the message that human rights aren't a big deal. You can persecute people, imprison them for religious and political reasons, but we'll still honor you by making you host of the Olympics."
His concern, he says, is that the decision could give China the impression that their propaganda efforts are working. And, unfortunately, with some they are. "But since China is extraordinarily image-conscious, this may restrain the hand of persecution against believers and it will certainly result in the gospel being brought into China," Alcorn adds.
Another benefit, he continues, is that Christians around the world will be praying: "It will usher in unprecedented intercession for believers in China."
Alcorn likened the situation to that in Genesis 50, where Joseph said of his brothers, 'You intended it for evil but God intended it for good.' He says, "I think it was a wrong decision, yet I think that God will bring much good out of it. He is bigger than wrong decisions and He can use things for His glory - and I believe He will."
Long-term benefits are more debatable: "There will be a huge flow of money into the country," Alcorn says. "Beijing will no doubt demolish ghetto housing that would be visible to cameras. But will these poor people be compensated and relocated to better conditions? Probably not. Will they be allowed to inhabit whatever nice structures are built in place of the old hovels? Probably not. Everything in China is calculated for image and prestige and economic prosperity."
Alcorn does believes that the influx of Christian athletes, coaches, journalists and spectators - and the Bibles and literature they will bring - will be good for China. Alcorn is skeptical that persecution of Chinese Christians will end with the Beijing Olympics, but he is certain that this persecution will be well hidden from international cameras.
And yes, persecution is very much alive in China. In spite of the image the government portrays, Alcorn has found that the Chinese have very limited religious freedom. "China is historically the place that most Christians have been persecuted and martyred, and some are still dying even today."
China today is a paradox, according to Alcorn. Some churches are able to worship freely while other church leaders are being arrested, persecuted and jailed. While not always enforced, all churches have legal government restrictions regarding worship gatherings, evangelism and education.
"The widespread myth is the unqualified statement that you can be a registered church in China and freely preach the gospel," says Alcorn. "This is a great oversimplification. It depends on where you are and what you are allowed to see."
Overseas business executives are often taken to a "showcase" church where people are permitted to worship freely. Yet they don't realize that in a city of 4 million people, there are only three registered churches. "And they can't speak about the resurrection or the second coming of Christ," Alcorn explains. "They can't preach from the book of Revelation or teach religion to anyone who is under the age of 18.
"It is literally illegal every time a Christian parent reads the Bible to or prays with their child."
While visiting the country a year-and-a-half ago to do research for "Safely Home," Alcorn interviewed a number of believers and witnessed first-hand the faith and trials of China's exploding Christian population.
Under the Communist Party, the number of Christians in China has grown to more than 60 million, says Alcorn. Other estimates place the total at between 100 million to 200 million. "The number of people coming to Christ is absolutely staggering," he adds, estimating that over 20,000 people each day put their faith in Jesus.
One of Alcorn's most vivid memories of China is of going into an illegal gathering in a private home, where they were showing the "Jesus" film in Mandarin. "They had brought 38 people into this tiny house - the house was the size of an office - and I was sitting there thinking of the risk that they were taking by inviting non-Christian neighbors to come and see the film."
Any of the non-Christians could have reported the believers to the authorities. In fact, says Alcorn, there are incentives given to people to spy on and report each other. "So the risk that they were taking to get the gospel to their neighbors was huge. They could very well go to prison where beatings are common."
Alcorn asked a man who works with one of the Christian ministries in that particular town, "How many believers locally do you know who are presently in jail for their faith?" The man replied there were over two dozen - in that one little area.
"I was very humbled at the freshness and vitality and simplicity of the faith of the Chinese Christians I've met," says Alcorn. "They don't focus on their suffering or that at any given time their lives could be much easier if they'd be quiet about their Lord."