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China promises to meet religious needs of foreigners during 2008 Olympics

October 24, 2007:

In an interesting and revolutionary development, China has promised to offer religious services to foreigners at the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in Beijing.

In addition, the officially atheist nation has decided to play a “positive role” in the future, a top official of religious affairs has said.

A large number of athletes and tourists who are religious are expected at the Olympic Games and Beijing will “make sure” that their religious needs are met, Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told reporters at the ruling Communist Party’s 17th Congress.

However, Ye Xiaowen did not say whether China would allow proselytizing like other Olympic hosts, media reports said.

In yet another development, Ye Xiaowen urged the Vatican to set up diplomatic ties with China, where there are some 10 million Catholics either in state-approved churches or “underground” churches.

Catholics in the state-approved church respect the Pope as a spiritual figurehead but do not recognize his authority as those in the “underground” churches do.

Following the Communist revolution, China has not had diplomatic ties with the Vatican since 1949. In fact, there has been considerable tension between Beijing and the Vatican because of differences on issues such as the authority to appoint bishops, the recognition of the Pope, and the Vatican’s relationship with Taiwan.

Ye Xiaowen acknowledged that, in recent years, the number of Chinese religious followers, including Christians, has grown. He stressed that the Communist Party would now encourage religion to play a positive role “in promoting economic and social development” in the future instead of crushing religions.

Observers feel that China is apparently making great efforts to repair its image vis-à-vis religious freedom and human rights ahead of the Olympics. For many months, China, the world’s most populous country, has been under global scrutiny and fire for its religious oppression, including forcing churches to register and imprisoning, and even torturing, church leaders.

Recent times have witnessed China softening its stand on religion in the wake of international pressure.

The communist state attracted worldwide media attention recently when foreign Christians were expelled.

Between April and June 2007, over 100 foreign missionaries were forced out of China as a part of a government-sponsored campaign to prevent evangelization during the Olympics, according to the United States-based China Aid Association.

This expulsion of foreign missionaries was the largest since 1954, when the Chinese communist government drove out all foreign religious workers after taking power.

Media reports said Ye Xiaowen has dismissed accusations that China restricted the printing and sales of Bibles, saying that the Bible is only distributed through state-run churches and not through bookshops.

However, Chinese authorities recently arrested a Christian leader who attempted to pick up a large cargo of Bibles from a bus stop.

There are about 100 million Christians in China who worship outside of registered churches.




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