'Watershed' as China's rulers embrace religion: Anglican leader

Beijing, China - China's rulers are now beginning to embrace religion in efforts to build a fairer society but the persecution of religious groups remains a worry, the head of the world's Anglican Church said Monday.

Wrapping up a rare two-week visit, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said China was in the middle of a "watershed moment" with many people looking to religion amid huge economic and social changes.

Williams said he noted increasing recognition within the officially atheist Chinese government that religions can have a positive impact in a society where many have been left behind in the country's speedy economic progress.

"It's clear that the government recognizes that there is no way forward on this without the full cooperation of religious bodies," he told reporters in Beijing.

"The church is a vital partner. The church needs to be there alongside other organs of the developing civil society, raising questions and encouraging debates."

Williams, the leader of 70 millions Anglicans worldwide, is the most senior Church of England prelate to visit China in more than a decade, following in the footsteps of predecessors Robert Runcie in 1983 and George Carey in 1994.

As well as Beijing, he visited Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Xian at the invitation of Chinese religious officials.

In contrast, Beijing and the Vatican, which represents more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide, have yet to establish diplomatic ties. No pope has ever visited China.

Williams said that decades of persecution of religious groups that were not sanctioned by the government remained a serious concern.

"There is a record over the last 20 to 30 years of harassment of religious minorities, with which we're unhappy, and it's recognized as a problem and embarrassment by many people in high positions," he said.

Fearful of any challenge to their rule, China's Communist rulers maintain strict control over religious affairs and require all faith communities to register and carry out activities in accordance with government regulations. They count about 16 million members.

International rights groups often cite harassment by authorities of those wishing to worship outside state control in what are called "underground" or "house" churches.

Williams said that in conversations with Chinese leaders he had raised the questions of underground churches, harassment of Christians, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the extensive use of the death penalty.

He did not meet with Christians from underground churches but said he had been fully briefed by people who had contacts with them.

Noting that some "quiet brokerages" were taking place, Williams said the Anglican Church was willing to cooperate with authorities rather than challenge the government to improve human rights problems.

"We are content to work with the church which seems to be lively and capable to take the initiative here," he said.

Williams also reflected on the "astonishing" growth in Christian numbers among China's 1.3-billion population, which he attributed to social problems linked to the nation's economic changes.

"These ... extraordinary explosions in China, economic-wise, have left many huge questions about personal and social values unanswered," Williams said.

A feature of Chinese President Hu Jintao's three-year rule has been to build a more "harmonious society" in which the nation's fast-widening wealth gap is narrowed.

In a sermon Sunday in Beijing, Williams urged Chinese Christians to develop the "inner freedom" needed to serve their country's real needs, "a freedom that allows them to see the truth about themselves and about the society they live in."