BEIJING — Christian groups who flouted a Chinese ban on foreign missionaries are calling their underground evangelizing during the Olympic Games a success.
Drawn to a nation of 1.3 billion people under atheist rule, the groups prepared for years for what the Southern Baptists once called "a spiritual harvest unlike any other."
"We did see some conversions," said Christian missionary Mark Taylor of Pensacola, Fla.
For Taylor, planning began four years ago with a lunch at the Athens Games among his Florida-based Awaken Generation ministry and ones from other countries. In the ensuing years, they came to China as tourists, making contacts among local Chinese.
Taylor — who leaves China on Friday — said 115 people from 12 countries gathered in Thailand for orientation before scattering throughout China, from Tibet through the far northeast. Two groups worked in Beijing, he said, though he would not give details.
Other larger efforts were carried out by the U.S.-based Southern Baptist Convention and the international ministry Youth With A Mission, Christian groups told The Associated Press. Neither ministry could say how many people were sent in.
China tried to keep out foreign missionaries before the Olympics. It kicked out more than 100 suspected missionaries last summer, according to a U.S. monitoring group, the China Aid Association. China's intelligence services made lists of potentially troublesome evangelical Christians, and authorities tightened visa measures ahead of the games.
Even the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, said during a visit to China this year that he did not support illegal missionary work during the Olympics.
Taylor and other groups knew the risks.
"It's very difficult," said the 27-year-old Taylor, who on Wednesday explored the Olympic Green with six other team members, one as young as 15, after finishing their mission. "It's got to be through relationships. Handing out (religious) tracts would not go over well at all. That would be like me walking around with a 'Free Tibet' flag."
Instead, the Christians came in on tourist visas and said they were involved in sports or cultural activities, which China allows. Taylor's group renovated a school in Yunnan province. Members then reached out to Chinese in one-on-one conversations.
In response to a phone request by the AP, China's religious affairs administration office issued a statement Thursday referring to Chinese law.
"If foreigners do such things in China, they violate the law, and local religious departments and other departments should stop them," the statement said.
It did not say how many foreigners had been caught doing missionary work during the Olympics.
Looking for 'opportunities'
Olympics efforts among Christian groups were coordinated in 2006, when major ministries held a conference in Thailand, said the Rev. Johnny Li, minister-at-large for Open Doors, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians. He said a DVD was distributed encouraging cooperation among groups.
One of the most active ministries during the Olympics was Youth With A Mission, or YWAM, which sent in groups from around the world. One group of Thai Christians went to Yunnan province this month and danced to Thai-language Christian music in coffee shops and restaurants.
"They looked for opportunities to talk to the locals and share about their faith," said Sam Sarvis, YWAM's national director in Thailand. After the first week, authorities told the group there was a ban on performances by foreigners, so the Thais went to nearby villages and met people one-on-one.
"Our goal was wanting to communicate the love of God to people, not be overt," Sarvis said.
One Christian group made headlines this week when Chinese authorities confiscated 315 Chinese-language Bibles found in their checked luggage when they arrived in the southwestern city of Kunming from Thailand.
A member of the Wyoming-based Vision Beyond Borders group said they wanted to give the Bibles to their "brothers and sisters." Chinese law forbids bringing in religious products for more than personal use.
"It was almost like they were treating us like criminals," member Pat Klein said by telephone as the group prepared to return to Thailand with the Bibles. He said the group was followed during its stay in China. "We thought we'd stay away from Beijing. We honestly didn't come here to cause trouble."
The subject of Olympics outreach was touchy for some groups.
"No comment," said a woman who answered the phone at Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ. She then hung up.
However, a spokesman for the Missouri-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes was happy to talk about outreach efforts within the Olympic Village by its athletes, including American marathon runner Ryan Hall.
Athletes stepped up to lead their own prayer groups or Bible studies after the Chinese said they would assign chaplains to the village's religious services center instead of allowing teams to bring in their own, said Dan Britton, the fellowship's senior vice president of ministries.
"It's a very unique situation," he said. "When you assign a chaplain, it's almost like saying, 'We're bringing a team to China and assigning the coach.' Well, the coach doesn't know the players and only knows the sport. We feel the spiritual realm is the same way."
One outreach success came ahead of the Olympics, when a U.S. team was in China for an exhibition match. The U.S. team and the Chinese team — Britton wouldn't name the sport — gathered in a hotel room the night before the match for a 30-minute prayer meeting arranged by a foreigner who had access to the Chinese team.
"It was very powerful," said Britton, who said he had seen photos of the meeting, where members of both teams prayed and sang. "God pulled it together."
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