Religion can promote social harmony in China - official

( [email protected] ) Mar 18, 2008 11:21 AM EDT

As China remains on the defensive over its human and religious rights record, a high-ranking official in the Communist Party has said that the officially atheist country should use religion to promote social harmony.

China has come under intense international scrutiny in the months running up to the Olympic Games in Beijing this August, and China’s leaders have been keen to reassure the international community that it respects religious freedom, which is also enshrined in the country’s constitution.

"We should fully follow the policy on freedom of religious belief, implement the regulations on religious affairs, ... guide religious leaders and believers ... and make full use of their positive role in promoting social harmony," Jia Qinglin, the Communist Party's fourth-ranked leader, told a news conference this week.

Jia heads the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body which began its annual meeting on Monday. He added that the Communisty Party must also "maintain ties with emerging social strata“ and open channels for them to articulate their interests.

Although Christianity has been permitted in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist state has traditionally been paranoid about any threats to Party rule and China’s lightning economic growth has not been matched by developments in human rights and political liberalisation.

China’s estimated 70 million believers are divided between the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the unofficial house church movement. Those who choose to worship outside official Party parameters face harsh punishments, including lengthy prison sentences, torture or time in ‚re-education‘ camps.

Christian persecution watchdogs remain particularly concerned over reports emerging from indigenous believers of a government-led crackdown on unofficial house churches in the lead up to the Olympic Games.

In one February sting alone, 70 house church leaders were rounded up by more than 20 policemen in Shangqiu City, in Henan Province, during a Bible training session in the house of brother Xue Weimin, according to leading Chinese persecution group, China Aid Association.

The group also learned this week that police have detained three young Christians between the ages of 18 and 20 for 15 days in Xinyuan County. According to China Aid Association, the police told the youngsters‘ parents that their children would be released as soon as they renounced their faith.