Open Doors: Project Pearl - 25th Anniversary of Delivering 1 Million Bibles to China

Open Doors' Project Pearl – the clandestine delivery of one million Chinese Bibles – celebrated its 25th anniversary on 18 June. Project Pearl was described by Time magazine's Beijing bureau chief as one of the most unusual and successful smuggling operations of the 20th century. Time called it “the largest operation of its kind in the history of China” in their 19 October 1981 article, 'Risky Rendezvous in Swatow'.

|PIC1|That evening in 1981, a 97-foot tugboat named Michael lumbered along at the sleepy speed of three knots an hour, towing the semi-submersible, 137-foot barge, Gabriella, loaded with 232 waterproof, poly-wrapped, one-ton packages containing a million Chinese Bibles.

The 20 crew members on board Michael were from Australia, Canada, Holland, New Zealand, the Philippines, the UK and the US.

By nine o’clock on that historic night, Michael approached the beach near Swatow, China (now called Shantou), weaving through a maze of anchored, Chinese navy ships in the darkness near the port city as thousands of local Christians waited patiently on the shore.

The off-loaded, floating Bible packages were towed to the beach by three small, rubber boats. The Chinese believers waded out into the water – some up to their necks – and pulled the packaged blocks up onto the beach, cut them open with shears, and handed the 45-pound cardboard boxes of Bibles to one another up across the sand and into the tree-line of the cove.

Two hours later, Michael and Gabriella and their crews left, with the one million Bibles in the care of Chinese believers who promised to circulate them across the entire country. In some cases, that process took five years, and a number of believers paid dearly for it. For them, each Bible was indeed a 'pearl of great price' referring to Matthew 13:44, from which the project was named.

Much controversy and disinformation immediately followed the delivery. Some ministries – eg China’s official Protestant Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – still claim the Bibles were thrown overboard in bags by the crew, who were forced by authorities to leave the scene.

Interestingly, there are stories of “wet” Bibles and “perfumed” Bibles from Project Pearl that continue to be shared to this day.

Wet Bibles

|PIC2|Some of the boxes of Bibles did get wet during the off-loading procedure. Additionally, a night patrol of Chinese police discovered some of the boxes of Bibles stashed under the trees, still awaiting transfer to a safe storage facility. The police tried unsuccessfully to burn the Bibles and then, in frustration, threw them into the water.

The next morning, fishermen plucked the floating volumes out of the sea and put them onto the roofs of their homes to dry. Later, they sold them to Christians in the area.

One well-known Chinese Christian leader acknowledged receiving “wet” Bibles from Project Pearl: in his book The Heavenly Man, Brother Yun sent a personal message via a friend that stated, “A big ‘thank you’ to Brother David and team who risked their lives for Project Pearl. And thank you so much for your great concern and love for the house church in China.”

Perfumed Bibles

Peter Xu, the leader of the Born-again Movement – one of the largest house-church networks in China – visited the American office of Open Doors three years ago. When he saw a Project Pearl Bible on a shelf there, he animatedly shared his Project Pearl experience.

After the delivery, Bibles were stored in depositories in southern China, Peter Xu sent three men every month to the depository contacts to bring back a thousand Bibles per trip for his growing house-church movement. One month, the three men were discovered with their Bible-load by the local police. The police threw the thousand Project Pearl Bibles into the cesspool of the public latrine and jailed the three men for the weekend.

On Monday, they were released and commanded to go straight home and never return. But instead, they waited inside the latrine until dark, then climbed down into the filthy cesspool of human waste and carefully retrieved each of the foul-smelling books. They rinsed them off under the local tap and carried them home. There, they dried them out, sprayed them with perfume and circulated them throughout the network. Such was the hunger for every copy of God’s Word.

The 20 crew-members of Project Pearl have been in touch with each other as the anniversary approaches. Ten are still involved in their own significant, full-time ministry in the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Over the past 25 years, Open Doors has received many documented stories – often from unusual places and situations – of the impact of Project Pearl Bibles on the fast-growing church in China. They have been in use in virtually every province of the PRC.

Project Pearl also had an impact on the printing of Bibles inside China, which continues today. Shortly after the project was completed, China’s Three Self Patriotic Movement announced the first official printing of Bibles inside the country. In his book, Jesus in Beijing, noted author and China watcher David Aikman wrote, “[Project] Pearl had a major, long-term impact on the overall availability of Bibles in China.”

But far more important are the personal evaluations from Chinese believers: “These gifts were more precious than gold!”

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