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Christian leader says China needs more religion

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, Nov 22 (Reuters) China must give space for religion to grow as it can help address social problems, the head of a global Christian group has said, though he warned against the influence of foreign missionaries.

Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, also said that he had seen no evidence of persecution of Christians in China, though he admitted it was an issue that should be addressed.

''It is in the best interests of the government to actually expand the space for the practice of religion and I feel that it will be to the detriment of the government here if it is not seen to be providing this freedom of religion,'' Kobia told a news conference yesterday.

''If China wants to be the kind of global player that it is clearly becoming ... then there are norms and standards which will be expected of the Chinese government and I think they are aware of this and that is why it is in their best interest to guarantee this freedom.'' Kobia, who was repeatedly asked if he had bought up the persecution of Christians not affiliated to the state-backed church, said nobody he had met in his just over one-week long visit had complained about it.

''It was a pastoral visit. We have had a chance to meet and talk with many ordinary people and Christians, and the issues of religious persecution didn't come up in discussions with them.

Therefor we didn't raise it up with the government authorities.'' Kobia was visiting at the invitation of the government recognised China Christian Council, a member of the World Council of Churches, which groups mainstream Protestant and Christian Orthodox churches and claims to represent more than 500 million people.

The officially atheist Communists, who have run China for the last half a century, say religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and citizens are free to attend ceremonies at churches, mosques and temples under state control.

International rights groups, as well as the United States and European Union, have accused China of jailing Catholic priests and Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns for remaining loyal to the Pope and the Dalai Lama, respectively.

''It's important we be concerned about religious persecution anywhere in the world,'' Kobia said, adding he had ''no way of verifying or substantiating'' persecution accusations.

China has 40-80 million active Christians evenly divided between state-run and underground churches, experts believe. But Kobia kept his harshest words for foreign evangelical missionaries, who he said had ''invaded'' his home country of Kenya.

Missionaries flocked to China prior to the 1949 Communist revolution, but were kicked out soon after. Some now come again, illegally, in the guise of teachers or business people.

''Any missionary who would want to come to evangelise in China should think very carefully what it is they want to do,'' he said.

Christians overseas would be better off helping Chinese to evangelise to other Chinese.

''Because they understand the culture better and they would be better off if we did it that way,'' Kobia said. ''There is a lot of confusion being bought by these evangelists.'' REUTERS SSC VV0941

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