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Rice urges China to expand religious freedoms
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged China to continue its moves toward religious freedom and think about political reforms to match its economic opening.
Rice raised the sensitive issues of human rights and democracy with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing on the final day of her six-nation tour of Asia, and after attending a church service on Sunday.
Rice called the church service she attended "an extraordinary experience" and said China's leaders should not view religion as a threat.
The late 1980s saw a hardening of Chinese government policy towards religions as a reaction to the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen Square incident churches in the UK were recently told.
The 1990s and 2000s have however seen a more ëpragmatic approachí by the government and a revival in many religions.
Observers say however that the new openness in China has also been accompanied by periodic crackdowns on religion, as nervous authorities in some provinces and regions struggle to handle a phenomenon that is new and not always welcome for them ñ the massive growth of religious sensibility in a country and system officially built on atheism.
"I do hope that there is an understanding that religious communities are not a threat to transitional societies. In fact they are very often Ö a source for good, for stability and for compassion in societies that are undergoing rapid change," Rice said.
In 2001 the then Chinese premier declared that religion was not only here to stay but that it might even outlive the Communist Party. The expectation is that religions can and will contribute significantly to the future development of Chinese society.
Recently there has been exponential growth in Chinese churches. Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 17 million. Researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70million. There are 12 million Catholics.