BEIJING -- Evangelist Billy Graham arrived Tuesday on his first trip to China to preach the gospel to Chinese believers and to visit his wife's hometown, declaring his tour of the world's largest officially atheist nation was 'a dream fulfilled.'
Graham, 69, will bring his fiery oratory skills to a half-dozen Chinese churches during the next three weeks, taking advantage of eased restrictions on organized religion and increasing interest by young Chinese.
'This is the first time I have set foot on Chinese soil and it's something I have dreamed about all my life, a dream fulfilled,' he told reporters at Beijing's Capital Airport.
The trip was planned for last year, butit was scrubbed when Graham fell in a Tokyo hotel room and fractured a rib.
'We have been looking forward to this visit,' Bishop K.S. Ding, head of the state-sponsored China Church Council, told the preacher and his wife Ruth. The council is sponsoring the couple's trip along with China's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.
'I'm here partially as a tourist and I come here primarily, always, wherever I go, as an ambassador of the kingdom of God,' Graham said.
Although the visit is Graham's first to China, his wife was born of missionary parents in northern Jiangsu Province, where her father, Dr. Nelson Bell, was chief surgeon at a Presbyterian hospital.
Ruth Graham left the town of Huaiyin at 17 to study in the United States and returned to China for a brief visit in 1980. The couple, along with their son-in-law and eldest son, will visit her childhood home April 19.
'Welcome back to your first motherland,' said one well-wisher, who presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
When Ding asked if she could still speak Chinese, Graham replied, 'A little,' using the language she said she first learned in a Chinese kitchen.
Her husband also is scheduled to meet church and state officials, including leaders of the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and Shanghai.
He is to address congregations in two of the capital's churches, two more in Shanghai, the faculty and studentsNanjing University and Nanjing's recently opened theological seminary.
Organizers said Graham will preach in English and a translator will interpret his sermons to the normally packed places of worship in Beijing.
Graham's tour comes amid a gradual easing of restrictions on China's 4 million Protestants and 3 million Catholics since the end of the chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when worship was illegal and churches were closed and ransacked.
Officially atheistic, the communist government has become more tolerant of organized religion and allowed thousands of churches throughout China to reopen and conduct weekly and holiday services.
Missionaries generally have been barred from China since 1949 and the government still has no relations with the Vatican.
Graham -- who has preached to more than 1.7 million people in about 60 nations -- made his most controversial trip abroad in 1982, when he visited the Soviet Union.
The wavy-haired evangelist drew sharp criticism from U.S. religious leaders for defending the Soviet Union against charges of religious persecution. He has been invited to return to Moscow in June to celebrate 1,000 years of Christianity in that country.