BEIJING – Beijing Olympic organizers angrily disputed allegations of religious intolerance Thursday, saying Bibles and other religious items for personal use will be welcome at next summer's games — except for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Recent reports by a religious news agency and European media saying Bibles would be banned at the Olympics touched off an outcry that prompted a U.S. senator to call the Chinese ambassador for an explanation and a Christian athletes group to protest the "deep violation."
Beijing organizers flatly denied the reports, and the Foreign Ministry charged the allegations were likely the work of people who want to sabotage Beijing's hosting of the games.
"There is no such thing. This kind of report is an intentional distortion of truth," said Li Zhanjun, director of the Beijing Olympics media center.
He said texts and other items from major religious groups that are brought into China for personal use by athletes and visitors are permitted. The Beijing Olympics Web site said "each traveler is recommended to take no more than one Bible into China."
Li also said religious services — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist — will be available to athletes in the Olympic Village.
However, he said, the policies do not apply to Falun Gong, reasserting China's determination to eradicate the movement. Falun Gong was banned eight years ago as an "evil cult" after its members staged a mass protest outside government headquarters to demand official recognition.
The State Department says Falun Gong practitioners in China face arrest, detention and possible torture as members overseas maintain a vigorous campaign of protest against China's government.
"We don't recognize it because it's a cult," Li said. "So Falun Gong texts, Falun Gong activities in China are forbidden. Foreigners who come to China must respect and abide by the laws of China."
China's leadership is using the Summer Olympics to project a positive image of the country. Venue construction has hummed at a record pace, and Beijing is so eager to host a flawless event that it enacted campaigns to stomp out speaking poor English, spitting, littering and cutting in line.
Yet preparations have been tarred by complaints about China's human rights abuses and Beijing's choking smog. The regime also has drawn criticism over its support for Sudan's Arab-dominated government, an oil supplier accused of atrocities against ethnic Africans in Darfur.
The games have now cast a spotlight on religion, which is heavily regulated in China by the officially atheist ruling Communist party. Worship is legal only in party-controlled churches, temples and mosques, and those who attend others face harassment, arrest and terms in labor camps or prison.
Bibles are printed under government supervision and can be sold only in approved churches, according to the Web site of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs. Visitors can bring in religious texts for personal use, but no more than three copies of each, said an official at the agency's regulation department, who refused to give his name.
In a statement, the International Olympic Committee said the news articles reporting a Bible ban stemmed from a misunderstanding of what was said at an October briefing in Beijing during which items banned from import into China were discussed.
"It is clear that athletes coming to the games are able to bring with them religious items for personal use, as in previous games, to the Olympic venues," the statement said.
Speaking at a regularly scheduled news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the media reports pointed to attempts to undermine China's Olympic glory.
"There are some people out there who do not want to see China hold a successful games," Liu said.