China pledges religious services during Olympics
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will offer religious services for foreigners arriving for the 2008 Olympic Games and religion will play a positive role in the country's future, its top religious affairs official said on Wednesday.
Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, also urged the Vatican to move ahead to establish diplomatic ties with the world's most populous country.
There are some 10 million Catholics in China, divided between an "underground" church loyal to the Holy See and the state-approved church that respects the Pope as a spiritual figurehead but rejects effective papal control.
Ye said he expected large numbers of religious faithful among the athletes, coaches and tourists swarming into the officially atheist nation during the Olympics.
"We are learning from practices in past Games to make sure that their demands for religious worship are met," Ye told reporters on the sidelines of the ruling Communist Party's 17th Congress.
"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 if proselytizing would be allowed.
The number of Chinese believers in Buddhism, Taosim and Christianity have been on the rise in recent years, Ye added. Rapid economic growth has brought increasing diversity as well as social tension to Chinese society.
The Communist Party used to attack home-grown religions as superstition and foreign ones as subversive, but will now encourage religion to play a positive role "in promoting economic and social development" in the future, Ye said, quoting Party chief Hu Jintao's speech.
Ye prodded the Vatican, whose diplomatic relations were severed shortly after the Communist revolution in 1949, to make concessions to normalize ties.
Beijing and the Holy See differ over who has the authority to appoint bishops, but have been engaging in cautious exploration of normalization.
"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 of the efforts.
Ye urged the Vatican to cut ties with Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing has claimed as its own since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, and to promise not to interfere in China's internal affairs in the name of religion.
"You cannot just stand on the other side of river, crying foul and cursing (China)," Ye said.
Ye also dismissed Western allegations that China restricted the printing and sale of Bibles, which receive state subsidies and other preferential policies.
"We distribute the Bible only through churches and do not allow ordinary bookstores to sell them. The purpose is merely to prevent illegal vendors from driving up prices, which are kept extremely low by government subsidies."
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