BEIJING – Chinese customs officials confiscated more than 300 Bibles on Sunday from four American Christians who arrived in a southwestern city with plans to distribute them, the group's leader said.
The Bibles were taken from the group's checked luggage after they landed at the airport in the city of Kunming, said Pat Klein, head of Vision Beyond Borders. The group, based in Sheridan, Wyoming, distributes Bibles and Christian teaching materials around the world to "strengthen the persecuted church," according to its Web site.
The group arrived in China on Sunday and had intended to distribute the Bibles to people in the city, Klein told the AP in a telephone interview while still at the airport.
"I heard that there's freedom of religion in China, so why is there a problem for us to bring Bibles?" Klein said. "We had over 300 copies and customs took all of them from us."
The move comes as China hosts the Olympics in Beijing, where false media reports last year claimed Bibles would be banned from the games. The state-run China Daily reported last month that 10,000 bilingual copies of the Bible would be distributed in the Olympic Village, which houses athletes and media.
Bibles are printed under the supervision of the Communist government. The officially atheistic country only allows them to be used in government-sanctioned churches and in some big hotels catering to foreigners.
A woman who was on duty at Kunming airport's customs office confirmed over the telephone that 315 Bibles were found in the passengers' checked baggage.
The officer, who would only give her last name, Xiao, denied confiscating the Bibles. She said authorities were just "taking care" of them and provided no further details. She later said she was not authorized to speak to the media and referred questions to the national customs headquarters in Beijing, which did not answer phones on Sunday.
"We're not selling them; we give them free to the people," Klein said. "We didn't come to cause trouble, we just came to bring Bibles to help out the Chinese Christians."
The Bibles were printed in Chinese, he said.
Klein said the customs officers had told him that they could each have one Bible for personal use and not more than that. He said the officers had videotaped them and were insisting that they leave the airport.
"We don't want to go without taking those books. It cost us a lot of money to bring them here," Klein said. "They're saying that it's illegal to bring the Bibles in and that if we wanted to, we had to apply ahead of time for permission."
China faces routine criticism for its human rights violations and its repression of religious freedom. Religious practice is heavily regulated by the Communist Party, with worship allowed only in party-controlled churches, temples and mosques, while those gathering outside face harassment, arrest and terms in labor camps or prison.
A Chinese Christian activist was detained Aug. 10, the opening weekend of the Olympics, on his way to a church service attended by U.S. President George W. Bush in Beijing. A rights group said later that the activist, Hua Huiqi, a leader of the unofficial Protestant church in Beijing, had escaped from police and was in hiding.
Police have denied any involvement in Hua's disappearance.