Image: Scott Brauer via CT
Image: Scott Brauer via CT

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra / 23 October 23 2014 – Should consumers worried about the origins of their clothing, coffee, and chocolate focus on a more spiritual item: the Bible?

Chances are good that your favorite Bible was printed in China. The overwhelming majority of Bibles sold at Christian bookstores or Barnes & Noble were printed there, said Mark Bertrand of Bible Design Blog. And more publishers are joining in.

“A lot of people have misgivings about that,” he said. “Some of it is, ‘Oh, our Bibles are printed in Communist China.’ Others are concerned about the economic situation, about what conditions these Bibles were produced under.”

The Chinese government’s restriction of Bible distribution is also troubling, said ChinaAid’s Bob Fu. “When brothers and sisters are being persecuted and arrested for their beliefs based on the same Bible, what does it mean to purchase an exported copy that says Made in China?”

Since China’s only legal printer of Bibles, Amity Printing Company, published its first Bible in cooperation with the United Bible Societies (UBS) in 1987, 117 million Bibles have followed. More than half of those were printed in the last six years, including 12.4 million in 2013, making China the world’s biggest Bible publisher. Three out of four of last year’s Bibles were produced for export.

“The simple reason is that China is a manufacturing powerhouse in world trade,” said Amity board member David Thorne. “The more complex and interesting answer is that it is the outcome of God’s hand on the mission of the church.”

Choosing a printer comes down to “quality and competitive price,” said Tim Bensen, a buyer at Tyndale House Publishers. “We print all over the world,” he said. “Amity does good work.”

Printing Bibles is more difficult than printing other types of books, and requires a certain amount of expertise, he said.

Randy Bishop, director of Bible production at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, agrees. “Bibles have more steps in the production process,” he said. “However, the main feature that makes a Bible unique is thin paper. It takes a special expertise to print, fold, gather, and bind Bible paper.”

Along with providing skilled employment at above-market salaries, Amity maintains government standards in work practices and uses environmentally friendly materials, said Thorne. And the UBS share of Amity profits is used to subsidize Bible distribution in rural China, where Scripture is harder to obtain.

So when an American purchases a Bible made in China, it doesn’t mean a Chinese Christian will now lack one. The difficulty Chinese Christians have in acquiring Bibles isn’t because of Amity’s printing abilities, but because of government restrictions on sales, said Barry Werner, chief operating officer of Bibles for China.

The official Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches are the only ones who can order—and sell—the Bibles. That leaves organizations like Bibles for China, which gave away about 200,000 Bibles in rural China last year, to place their orders through the church.

But the bigger problem is Christians’ lack of money, said Thorne. “As demand has increased year-by-year, larger publishing quotas have been approved. Because of funding shortfall, sometimes the church has not managed to utilize its entire annual quota.”

While the current sales arrangement is often frustrating, it’s eased by technology, said Brent Fulton, president of ChinaSource. “China leads the world in terms of people accessing the Web via their smartphones, and you can get a Bible app just like you can anywhere,” he said. “There’s no limitation to that.”

And maybe Westerners seeing Made in China on their Bibles, Fu said, “can be a reminder to pray for those who made these Bibles.”

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