By Juan L. Mercado

CHINA BLEW its top over the weekend. Beijing’s pique didn’t stem from the flabby US dollar sapping the value of US$819 billion it has stashed. Nor did the unwanted embrace by Burma’s paranoid junta irk. The fury swirled around a book – the bible.

     “China’s religious affairs authorities and Olympic organizers have not banned the bible” an irritated Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao snapped at a hastily-called press conference.

     His denial scuppered a report, by the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, that Beijing would prohibit the “carrying of any kind of religious symbol at Olympic facilities.” The “bible ban” story exploded on the evening news and triggered worldwide Net exchanges.

     The International Olympic Committee confirmed Beijing’s denial, Associated Press reported “Religious services will be available in the Olympic Village. Li Zhanjun, Beijing Olympics media center director weighed in: “Religious texts, like the bible and qu’ran, should be available.

     Beijing won’t stand for Olympics trifling. It is spending 141 billion yuans (US$18 billion) to host the 2008 games in buffing up the image of a dominant power. And that does not include bills for new satellite cities and transport links. Government is leery about the Athen Games under-budgetting, Moscow’s Novosti news agency reports. “The Chinese Olympics promises to be the most expensive sports event in human history.”

     Beijing is adamant nothing tars this build-up. But that objective has also become a magnet “for groups wishing to put pressure on China on everything: from Tibet to Beijing’s support of Myanmar’s junta,” the Guardian reports. This pressure ratchets as the opening day nears.

     Other than it’s been translated into more than 2,300 languages and dialects, what is it about the bible that raises hackles?

     Saudi Arabia, for example, bans it, even within homes. Burma prohibits its translation. In 2003, protests by Malaysian Christians led Kuala Lumpur to junk a ban on bibles, published in the dialect of Ibans of Borneo. Thailand, in contrast, has a tradition of tolerance towards all faiths.

     “Most people are bothered by those passages in (the bible) that they can not understand,” Mark Twain wisecracked. “The passages that trouble me most are those that I do understand.

     Wordsmiths tell us the word “bible” comes from the Latin biblia. “The Christian scripture was referred to, in Greek, as Ta Biblia as early as 223. The Old Testament is a collection of books written prior to the life of Jesus. The New Testament relates the life and teachings of Jesus, letters of  Paul and other disciples to the early church and the Book of Revelation.

     “The Bible is literature, not dogma,” the philosopher George Santayana explains. Some from Ecclesiastes have become part of daily discourse. “For everything there is a season… A time to be born and a time to die…” Other lines make readers catch their breath. “Entreat me not to leave you,” Ruth tells Naomi. “For where you go, I will go. And where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people. And your God, my God.” And Psalm 23 has consoled over generations: “Even though I walk through the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

     Mahatma Ghandi recalled how readings the Beatitudes shaped his outlook of liberation by peaceful means. Indeed, the book offers norms, like the 10 Commandments, watered down to “10 Suggestions.” In today’s society, “say what you will about the Ten Commanments,” editor H. L. Mencken wrote. “You always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.”

     Beijing won’t fret if all Olympic athletes, even visitors waved bibles. Concern stems from “more than 100 million religious adherents” in China. A February 2007 survey, by Shangai researchers, concluded: “31.4 percent of Chinese citizens ages 16 and over, or 300 million persons, are religious”.

     “This is approximately three times the official figure reported by the Government in April 2005”, says the 2007 “International Religious Freedom Report, submitted by State Department to the US Congress: Approximately 40 million citizens identify themselves as Christians and 200 million identify themselves as Buddhist, Taoist,” etc.

     “Increasing interest in Christianity resulted in a corresponding increase in demand for bibles,” the report adds. Unregistered church members find supply and distribution, particularly in rural areas, lag behind leapfrogging demand.

     In China today, you can buy bibles and sacred texts of other faiths at bookstores and most “officially recognized churches.” But government sits astride all printing presses. Religious tracts, published without authorization, including bibles and qur’ans, may be confiscated and, publishing houses padlocked. Bootleg publishing brings down stiff fines and jail terms.

     “Individuals cannot order bibles directly from publishing houses” Bulk purchases of bibles “could bring unfavorable attention to the purchaser. Customs officials monitor for the “smuggling” of bibles and other religious materials into the country.

     Is this concern exaggerated? Our experience is most of us don’t even dust off bibles. Otherwise, we’d discover what the Galilean meant when he said: “Everyone who listens to my words, and acts on them, will be like the wise man who built his house on rock. The rains fell and the winds blew. But the house stood because it was built on rock.”