An estimated 150 million Chinese Christians attend such “underground” churches, which are begrudgingly tolerated by the government — which would prefer the faithful attend tightly regulated state-run churches, which prohibit evangelism and bar attendance by children. Just before the 2008 Olympics, ”We’re hearing that police and public security forces are attending house church meetings and monitoring them more closely than before,” said Jerry Dykstra, a spokesman for Open Doors, a group that works closely with Chinese believers. “There are a lot of restrictions in place now on who can travel.” 

The State Department also noted China’s repression of the Falun Gong, a New Age group the central government claimed was attempting to subvert civil order. “Falun Gong practitioners continued to face arrest, detention, and imprisonment, and there have been credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse,” the report said.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Sikh athletes will be allowed to carry the ceremonial kirpan or three-inch, sheathed scimitar attached to a cloth belt worn under their clothes. However, Olympic soccer officials have declined to allow Sikh players to wear turbans, citing a longstanding ruling that “players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.” All soccer players must wear a shirt, shorts, socks, shin guards and cleats – but traditionally no head coverings.

The Iranian women's team

That rule — and now a decision to experiment with specially designed hijabs — was devastating for the Iranian women’s soccer team, which apparently has been eliminated after it forfeited — which counts as a lost game — when the team showed up in the banned headcover. FIFA has overlooked the long-sleeved shirts and pants, but not the head covering, which it says is a safety issue. Peripheral vision is crucial in soccer and cannot be obstructed by a scarf, which tends to come loose in competitive play. Also, hitting the ball with the head is a key tactic and any protection on the head gives an unfair advantage.

However, the Iranian women are holding onto a shread of hope after FIFA’s International Football Association Board heard a heart-felt appeal last weekend from FIFA Vice President Ali Bin al-Hussein, and agreeed to allow Muslim players to test  over the next four months Dutch-designed headscarves held secure by Velcro.

No announcement has been made on whether their forfeited match with Jordan can be rescheduled under Olympic rules.

Prince Ali’s campaign to lift the ban has received widespread support

from the United Nations, the Asian Football Confederation, the International Federation of Professional Footballers and members of FIFA’s own executive committee.

“I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB,” said Prince Ali after the new verdict. “I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I’m confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love.”

Why are daggers OK, but not scarves? Safety, says FIFA. The four-month experiment will test whether Dutch-designed hijabs will stay in place. FIFA allows the Sikh kirpans since they are concealed under the uniform and pose no safety issues – the same allowance already made for religious necklaces and rosaries if they are concealed underneath uniforms.

London police will allow the Sikh daggers through security as long as they are less than three inches long and carried by Sikhs observing the traditional five-point requirement of unshorn hair and beard, a ritual comb, a steel bracelet, special garments and the kirpan.

This is hardly the first religious dilemma facing the Olympics. Annually food-preparers in the Olympic Village face a daunting task of providing meals. For example, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese athletes prefer different kinds of rice and many Asian athletes expect a variety of noodles for breakfast. Hindus can’t eat beef, a number of faiths can’t eat pork, Jews can only eat food from kosher kitchens and Muslims require hallal-prepared food.

The very first games in 700 B.C., the Olympics had religious overtones and the strictest of regulations regarding head coverings – or any other covering. Athletes competed nude to ensure that no special gear gave anybody an advantage. Events were sandwiched between processions, sacrifices, altar rituals and banquets honoring the Greek gods. Unmarried girls could watch the games, but married women could not. Both were allowed to participate in an alternative sport festival that honored the goddess Hera, a consort of Zeus. The female athletes wore a short, knee-length tunic.