Bibles banned in China at Olympics? Well, not really.

The phone calls began this morning, first from a congressman’s office, and then another, and then from the U.S. State Department — all wanting to see what we had written about Bibles being banned from the Olympic Village in Beijing next summer.

And quicker than you can say Madalyn Murray O’Hair (for those of you old enough to remember that rumor), it turned out not to be true. But just like the story that atheist O’Hair had asked the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting on TV, this rumor raised a ruckus that may be hard to set straight.

The alarm bells on Capitol Hill were first set off by an item in The New York Sun and elsewhere on the Internet. Most if not all said the story came from Catholic News Service.

This part of the story is simply a case of mistaken identity: a story actually was published by the Catholic News Agency, not CNS.

But the rest of the story is even more baffling, since even a cursory look at the files of multiple media outlets would show that Bibles freely circulate in China — despite that regime’s other controls on religion — and that many churches in China, including the Catholic Church, are gearing up to provide religious services at the Beijing Olympics.

According to CNS international editor Barb Fraze, who visited China last March, the Bible has been available there for decades. For instance, nearly 58 million Bibles were published in China between 1988 and 2007 by the Nanjing Amity Printing Co. Ltd. She also gave me other examples of Bible use in China, such as a report in the Asian church news agency UCA News that Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi suggested Chinese Catholics might want to send Bibles as presents to non-Catholic friends and relatives to mark the 500th anniversary in 2005 of the birth of St. Francis Xavier.

But the rumor already has taken on a life of its own, bringing condemnations from well-meaning but misinformed people unaware of how the church there really operates.

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