Religion: Risky Rendezvous at Swatow

  • Share
  • Read Later

Bold expedition smuggles 1 million Bibles into mainland China

The beach near the mainland Chinese village of Gezhou, code named "Mike," looked deserted in the moonlight. Just offshore, in a glassy South China sea, a crew member on the seagoing tugboat Michael signaled inland with three sharp flashes of a hand-held light. Almost immediately, three answering flashes came from the shadowy trees at the edge of the 300-yd. beach. Suddenly, hundreds of figures swarmed silently down to the water's edge, where they had a brief and emotional rendezvous with their foreign visitors. The long-awaited and highly covert task that evening: unloading and distributing more than 1 million contraband Chinese-language Bibles. The 232-ton cargo of books had been printed in the U.S. and was smuggled 200 miles up the Chinese coast from Hong Kong in the largest operation of its kind in the history of China.

TIME has learned that the remarkable mission, dubbed Project Pearl and executed with military precision last June, was engineered by Open Doors with Brother Andrew International, a nondenominational, evangelical missionary organization based in Ermelo, The Netherlands. The group has specialized in smuggling Bibles mostly into Communist countries for some two decades. The purpose of Project Pearl was to bring badly needed copies of the Scriptures to 5 million Chinese Protestants, who worship under the watchful eye of the Peking government in an estimated 50,000 "house churches." Many of these churches were formed after the Cultural Revolution of the late '60s, when Chinese Christians were persecuted and their regular places of worship closed. Now even the more tolerant regime of Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Premier Zhao Ziyang has begun to bristle at the swift expansion of the house church movement, and is hardly likely to countenance the Bible smuggling effort. Says an American ex-Marine who led Project Pearl: "Between obedience to God and obedience to men, we choose obedience to God."

Project Pearl, a name inspired by Matthew 13:45 ("The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls"), had its beginnings in late 1979, when Open Doors was approached secretly by a house church leader, who urgently requested Old and New Testaments. Under the guidance of Open Doors President Anne van der Bijl, 53, staffers began raising money for the mission in the U.S. through dinners, direct mail and TV spots. The aim of the campaign was disclosed, but not the way the mission would be accomplished. Cost of the venture: $6 million, of which $3.5 million came from the U.S. and Canada and $2.5 million from abroad.

Simultaneously, local operatives in the Southeast China port of Swatow, the city near the planned landing, made hundreds of area photographs and closely monitored local Chinese security forces. The plan, completed last December, called for a sturdy tug to tow a partly submersible barge loaded with 232 one-ton blocks, each packed with 48 waterproof boxes containing 90 Bibles.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2