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US Christian group leaves airport after standoff

Aug. 18, 2008, 12:12 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) A group of American Christians who had more than 300 Bibles confiscated by Chinese customs officials left the airport Monday after a 26-hour standoff, saying they realized officials would not change their stance.

Members of Vision Beyond Borders, who arrived in the southwestern city of Kunming on Sunday while the Olympic Games were being staged in Beijing, had previously said they would not leave the airport until the communist authorities returned the 315 Bibles, taken from their checked luggage.

But the group said Monday that the U.S. Embassy told them the Chinese would abide by a law that forbids bringing religious products into the communist nation for more than personal use.

China's officially atheistic government prohibits proselytizing and is worried that if the spread of religion goes unchecked, believers might ultimately challenge the Communist Party's authority.

"We're very disappointed, for a country saying they're opening up and things are getting better, it sure doesn't seem like it," a representative of the group, Pat Klein, told the AP by telephone. The Sheridan, Wyoming-based group distributes Bibles and Christian teaching materials around the world.

The Bibles were printed in Chinese, he said, and were intended for Chinese Christians.

"The Chinese Christians have been asking us for Bibles, saying they are desperate for Bibles," he said.

China faces routine criticism for human rights violations and 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 risk harassment, arrest and terms in labor camps or prison.

In China, Bibles are printed at just one plant, run by a government-backed Christian association for use in officially sanctioned churches. Though they can be purchased in some bookstores, they're hard to find.

A fax from the customs officials in Kunming to the AP said that under Chinese law, foreigners can only bring in one to three copies of religious products for personal use. For more than that, letters of proof must be obtained from the religious affairs office of China, it said. This policy was explained to the Americans, the fax said.

Klein said he was told they could pick up the Bibles on their way out of the country.

Last year, false media reports claimed Bibles would be banned from the Olympic 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.