Under one glass case was an exquisite 102-year-old Bible dictionary for Chinese readers, decorated with Egyptian figures in the style of a tomb drawing. Preserved under another case was a yellowed edition of the Bible itself, published in China in 1890 and written in large, easy-to-read Mandarin characters.
The two antique volumes were among dozens gathered by China's officially sanctioned Christian churches and put on display in Hong Kong's sleek harbor-side convention center. It was the Communist government's latest gesture to reassure this former British colony, particularly its 600,000 Christians, that being ruled by Beijing is nothing to fear.
The Chinese government has gone out of its way to show a friendly face in Hong Kong since a sharply contested decision on April 26 stipulated that, despite a months-long campaign by democracy advocates, Hong Kong cannot pick its chief executive by direct elections in 2007 and cannot expand direct elections for its Legislative Council in 2008.
The decision, which ran counter to majority sentiment as measured by repeated opinion polls, outraged many in this prosperous enclave who had hoped to move swiftly along the path to full democracy. It gave rise to charges that the Communist leadership in Beijing was not being faithful to its promises of broad autonomy and "one country, two systems" made when British colonial authorities handed back sovereignty in 1997.
Seeking to win back public opinion, Chinese authorities have sought to sweeten the atmosphere in several ways in recent months. Without renouncing the April decision, they have entered into contacts with democracy activists here and taken other steps to portray the mainland's system as benevolent, something Hong Kong people can live with despite the brakes on democracy.
The five-day "Exhibition of the Bible Ministry of the Churches in China," which ended Tuesday, was aimed particularly at Christians here and abroad. It followed a similar display in May of the Buddha's finger bone, which drew large crowds. That relic was put on loan to Hong Kong by the Chinese government for an exhibition designed to appeal to the majority of Hong Kong's 6.7 million residents who have at least a nominal loyalty to Buddhism.
A more secular gesture went out at about the same time. Hong Kong residents were invited to board and tour several Chinese warships that docked here, producing PR-heavy newspaper photographs of local girls standing beside smiling Chinese sailors in their warm-weather whites.
In the same vein, the People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong celebrated China's annual Army Day on Aug. 1 with a parade by 3,000 soldiers before 27,000 spectators. Among those invited to attend were the Hong Kong politicians who have complained most loudly about Beijing's refusal to expand direct elections.
Part of the one-country, two-systems arrangement was maintenance of Hong Kong's traditional separation of church and state. Many Hong Kong Christians, including 300,000 Roman Catholics, have long argued that the same separation should apply on the Chinese mainland, where the government's Religious Affairs Bureau allows Christians to practice their faith only within officially sanctioned organizations and periodically cracks down on the many Christians who worship in unrecognized churches.
"I think the Chinese government is a little afraid of Hong Kong Christians," said Aslan Chan, 30, a Christian middle-school mathematics teacher in Hong Kong who was part of a crowd wandering Sunday morning through the Bible exhibition.
The exhibition's organizers stressed that Christians can worship freely and obtain Bibles without restriction in China, repeatedly making the point that the anti-religion strictures of the Cultural Revolution have come to an end. According to church officials here, the message was designed to reassure Hong Kong Christians that being part of China will not infringe on their religious practices, but also to reassure Christians abroad, particularly in the United States, that their faith and Holy Book are no longer under attack on the Chinese mainland.
"There is so much misunderstanding in Hong Kong and in the West," said the Rev. Cao Shengjie, head of the China Christian Council, one of the exhibition's organizers.
"Recently, China amended the national constitution and added to it new items protecting human rights," Bishop K.H. Ting, China's main state-sanctioned church leader, said in an address opening the exhibition. "This indicates that China is determined to better implement the policy of religious freedom and to ensure that religious freedom as a basic human right shall be well guaranteed."
The exhibit was organized by two of the three main government-sanctioned Christian bodies in China, the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches in China. (The latter group's name is drawn from the government's policy that the churches should be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing, rather than acting as junior branches of foreign churches.)
The third group is the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which comprises Catholic churches that, in line with Beijing's policy, refuse to acknowledge the authority of the pope.
The official organizations have estimated that 15 million Protestants and 6 million Catholics are on their rolls in a country of 1.3 billion people. But Chinese and foreign academics have estimated that Protestants and Catholics who worship outside the official institutions -- in what are called house churches -- number several times that; the semi-secrecy of house churches makes an accurate count impossible.
The Rev. Deng Fucun, deputy head of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, told reporters here that many "outrageous distortions" arise overseas about the status of Christians in China that could be rectified in part by the exhibition of China's long familiarity with the Bible. In fact, he said in an interview later, China has printed more than 35 million Bibles. Seventy church-run distribution centers have made sure they are available all over the country, he said.
"As you know, many people abroad think China has no Bible, so we thought it was a good idea to tell them," he added. "Christians in China love the Bible very much, and we want to tell all the people through this exhibit what our believers do."
Cao, referring to the Communist Party's authority over church activities in China, said, "We want to be good Christians and good citizens at the same time."