Yet another diplomatic tussle looms large between Beijing and the Vatican in the days ahead. It all started when the Catholic News Agency sent out the following really short story a few days ago, alleging that the Bible is “among objects prohibited at the 2008 Beijing Olympics”:
Organizers of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing have published a list of “prohibited objects” in the Olympic village where athletes will stay. To the surprise of many, Bibles are among the objects that will not be allowed.
According to the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, organizers have cited “security reasons” and have prohibited athletes from bearing any kind of religious symbol at Olympic facilities.
Other objects on the list include video cameras and cups.
The Spanish daily La Razon said the rule was one of a number of “signs of censure and intolerance” towards religious objects, particularly those used by Christians in China. Currently in China five bishops and fifteen priests are in prison for opposing the official Church.
We did not bring this to your attention because something in that story just did not feel right. After all, it was announced not too long ago that Beijing would provide Bibles to meet the “religious needs of foreign athletes” and this was was confirmed by both Catholic and Chinese news sources.
So we shot off an email to our colleague Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap — who we believe to be the most knowledgeable journalist around on Catholicism in China — asking him what he thought of the issue. According to Adam:
The CNA story cites an Italian newspaper, La Gazetta dello Sport, as the source of the story. And it turns out that La Gazetta is inferring, not reporting.
Adam found that La Gazetta unfortunately takes “materiale promozionale usato per attività religiosa o politica” (or “materials used for the promotion of religious or political activities”) which was in BOCOG’s list of banned items to refer to the Bible. And the (really stupid) Catholic News Agency went on to cite La Gazetta!
Well the effects are just beginning to be felt. This morning, the South China Morning Post reports that Beijing has “accused European newspapers and religious global news agencies of ‘blatantly lying'”. Said Wang Hui , executive deputy director of BOCOG:
“This is not true. There has been a misunderstanding… Athletes and other individuals can bring with them their own Bibles. But no one can bring in multiple copies for public distribution.” “These reports are nothing but blatant lies,” the official said. “Bibles and religious scriptures of the major faiths brought by athletes into the Olympic village are allowed, as are places of worship within the Olympic Village. This is the same as in all other Olympiads.”
We dug a bit deeper and found that the Catholic News Agency is not quite related to the Holy See. It also is pretty young, and was founded in 2004, in Lima, Peru. Adam adds:
For news about Catholics in Asia – including news on the religion and the Olympics – I don’t believe anything unless it appears in asianews.it or ucanews.com. The former tends to be a little too critical of China, but they stick to the facts.
There’s a lot of anti-China sentiment built up in certain quarters of the Catholic Church – and the Catholic media – and I could give all kinds of examples when those quarters have distorted or outright lied about the situation in China. It’s mostly leftover sentiments from the anti-communist/cold war mindset, and it doesn’t rear itself as much as it used to. But once in a while you get an example like this one. Unfortunately, this story now has legs, and is buzzing all over the right-wing Catholic news sites.
Just when we thought relations were beginning to warm between China and the Vatican, this had to happen — and all because of some really sloppy journalism by a certain so-called news agency! A great pity indeed. We are all for the democratisation of information, but perhaps it is time the Vatican thought about streamlining news dissemination for certain topics.
Photo of the Xuanwumen Catholic Church in Beijing from china_puwa