Religious leader calls for clearer definition of 'cult' in China

Beijing, China - One of the world's most senior Christian leaders said Monday there needs to be a clearer distinction in China between genuine religious organizations and criminal cults.

The head of the world's protestant Anglican community, Rowan Williams, Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury, also believes religious organizations in China need the freedom to speak out about social problems, such as the country's growing wealth gap.

At a press conference following a two-week visit to China, Williams added that in meetings with government leaders he had raised several other issues, such as the harassment of Christians, Tibetan autonomy, environmental problems and the death penalty.

Williams said there are a range of different Christian groups in China: some that are registered, some that want to register but are frustrated by regulations and others that wish to remain anonymous.

"One of the problems is that the state of current regulations means it's very difficult for officialdom to present absolutely clear distinctions between orthodox, ordinary groups and a cult which is engaged in criminal activity," he said.

The archbishop, who visited five cities on his trip to China, added there are many regulations in China about what a religious organization could not do, but not enough about the "rights and claims" of religious bodies.

Williams, who is head of around 70 million believers who make up the worldwide Anglican community, claimed many senior Chinese leaders were not happy with the country's poor treatment of religious groups.

"There's a record over the last 20 or 30 years of harassment of religious minorities and is recognized as a problem and an embarrassment by many people in high positions," he said, although he added the government does permit a large amount of religious activity.

Williams said one specific case he raised with China's leaders was that of Beijing's Cai Zhuohua, who was sentenced to three years in prison last year for "illicitly trading" bibles.

The archbishop said there were also reports Cai's lawyer, Zhang Xingshui, had been harassed and faced charges.

In a sermon delivered Sunday at Beijing's Chaoyang Church, Williams said religious groups should have the freedom to speak out for those who have benefited least from China's fast-paced economic growth, which "has left many huge questions about personal and social values unanswered."

It is a subject addressed by Jia Qinglin, chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, in a meeting with Williams last week.

Jia said religion has an important role to play in building a "harmonious society," China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

China's Christians, who are believed to number several million, worship at either state-sanctioned churches or go to underground churches, also known as "house churches."

A U.S. report released last month said China's respect for the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience "remained poor," an accusation China says is groundless.