With Beijing hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, the People's Republic of China is opening its doors in unprecedented fashion, affording many in the United States and throughout the world a first close look of China.
And while Olympics-related travel provides an inaugural Chinese visit for some members of the Church, they have long been preceded by others, including some who have resided for extended periods in this ancient and sometimes mysterious and now rapidly developing Far East country.
Although the Church has never been legally recognized in China, the first foreign members began residing there in the late 1970s with the normalization then of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The first foreign members in China were diplomats, but the range has since broadened to include bankers, engineers, businesspeople, lawyers, teachers and students all of whom go to China for a year or two, or sometimes longer, before returning to their home countries.
While in China, these foreign members help build international relations and participate in China's development while raising their families and striving to be examples of service and excellence similar to Latter-day Saints throughout the world.
"China has been a great place to raise our family in the gospel and to build relationships with saints throughout the world," said Elder Anthony D. Perkins, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and first counselor in the Asia Area presidency.
Elder Perkins, who before his call as a General Authority resided with his family in Beijing for eight years while helping build the Chinese operations of a leading international business consulting firm, said as many as 20 to 30 different nationalities may be represented in some the Church's international branches in China.
Life in China for these members has challenges and blessings. Unlike many countries where religious activities are an accepted part of life, religion in modern China has had only a limited role.
China recognizes freedom of religious belief, but requires any religious activities to comply with Chinese laws and regulations. Only certain religions are legally recognized in China The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not yet one of them.
Understanding the unique restrictions on religious activities in China and complying with them has enabled foreign members of the Church to gain the trust of the Chinese government and, because of this trust, foreign members may meet together much like they do throughout the world.
Adapting to restrictions in China, however, can be challenging. For example:
• No proselyting of any kind is permitted in China a change for members used to sharing the gospel with others elsewhere.
• There are no Church-owned facilities in mainland China members meet in homes or in rented halls.
• Religious materials may not be distributed in China, and Church materials may not be shipped in.
• Like other foreign religious groups, foreign Church members may not invite Chinese nationals to join them for religious activities.
Church leaders in China remind members there are no restrictions on Christlike living, service to others and setting a good example. "We just emphasize, 'Love the gospel and be who you are,"' Elder Perkins said.
Church members are recognized in China for their observance of the Word of Wisdom and contributions to their respective communities. Larger-scale efforts include Brigham Young University's well-respected China Teachers Program providing English teachers in various Chinese universities and humanitarian projects ranging from helping to develop water systems to working with Chinese charities in providing wheelchairs and walkers or combatting asthma and measles.
Notwithstanding restrictions on religious activities and possibly because of them, participating in Church activities is a particularly important part of the lives of foreign members in China.
"Members who move to China are often surprised to find other foreign members of the Church," said Steve Toronto, president of the Beijing China International District, an international lawyer and a long-term resident of Beijing. "Perhaps because of the unique challenges we face in China, we appreciate even more the support and fellowship of other members. In many cases, bonds of friendship formed in China remain strong well after members return home."
Elder Perkins said Asia Area leaders in Hong Kong and branch and district leaders in China have been preparing for the anticipated increase of visiting Church members in Beijing and other cities this summer.
Branch meeting locations and times have been updated for the international branches in Beijing and Shanghai on the Church's "Meetinghouse Locator" online resource at www.lds.org, with information for other international branches in China soon to follow.
Elder Perkins added that the Church is also looking at providing additional features at the same site a downloadable .pdf file detailing some of the aforementioned restrictions and cautions and maps and directions written in Chinese characters so visiting members can get help in arriving at the right location.
"As the Church works to further build bridges of trust in China, foreign members who visit China will be some of the Church's most important ambassadors," said President Toronto. "By understanding proper protocols and abiding by government guidelines for religious activities, these members will enhance the image of the Church and help build a foundation for the future."
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