Atheist China Vows to Encourage Religion

China has promised to offer religious services to foreigners at the 2008 Olympic Games and to have religion play a positive role in the future of the officially atheist country, the top religious affairs official said Wednesday.

A large number of religious athletes and tourists are expected at the Games and Beijing will "make sure" their religious needs are met, Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said to reporters at the ruling Communist Party's 17th Congress, according to Reuters.

"Here I can promise that religious services we offer will not be lower than the level of any previous Games," Ye said. He did not say, however, if China will allow proselytizing like other Olympic hosts.

Ye also urged the Vatican to establish diplomatic ties with China, where there are some 10 million Catholics either in state-approved churches or "underground" churches.

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

Since 1949, China has not had diplomatic relations with the Vatican following the Communist revolution. There has been significant tension between the two powers because of differences on issues such as the authority to appoint bishops, the recognition of the pope, and the Vatican's relationship with Taiwan.

"There comes a separating river when the two sides approach nearer to each other. Then you should build a bridge or find a boat to cross," Ye said. "You cannot just stand on the other side of the river, crying foul and cursing [China]," he said.

The top religious affairs official acknowledged that in recent years the number of Chinese religious followers, including Christians, has grown. Ye claims the Communist Party will now encourage religion to play a positive role "in promoting economic and social development" in the future instead of crushing religions, quoting Party chief Hu Jintao's speech.

China seems to be making great efforts to repair its religious freedom and human rights image before the Olympics. For months the world's most populous country has been under scrutiny and fire for its oppressive religious restrictions including forcing churches to register and imprisoning and even torturing house church leaders.

Recently though, China has reportedly softened its crackdown in light of international pressure by using tactics such as forbidding owners of rental housing properties from leasing space to house churches or worship services.

Public Security Bureau officials still continue to arrest house church worshippers, however – just in a much quieter way to avoid attention.

China likely lessened conspicuous crack downs in light of the media attention it received earlier in the summer for expelling foreign Christians. Between April and June more than 100 foreign missionaries were expelled from China as part of a government-sponsor campaign to prevent evangelization during the Olympics, according to the U.S.-based China Aid Association.

The expulsion of foreign missionaries is the largest since 1954, when the Chinese Communist government expelled all foreign religious workers after taking power.

Chinese religious affairs head Ye also dismissed accusations that China restricts the printing and sales of Bibles, saying the Bible is only distributed through [state-run] churches and not through bookshops.

"The purpose is merely to prevent illegal vendors from driving up prices, which are kept extremely low by government subsidies," Ye claimed.

However, China recently arrested a Christian leader who attempted to pick up a large cargo of Bibles from a bus stop. The Christian leader said there were not enough Bibles available in his rural area so he asked a friend to ship them to him to share with locals.

China has an estimated up to 100 million Chinese Christians who worship outside of registered churches.