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A leading Chinese religious scholar called the country ready for "an institutional guarantee for the legality and equality of all religions," according to a December article in China Daily, the official government English language newspaper. Religious freedom experts say they are cautiously optimistic about the public pronouncement.

In an interview, Chinese entrepreneur, researcher and religion expert Liu Peng called for a "system [to] be developed in such a way as to let more religious affairs be governed by law, instead of through administrative means." All religious groups should be provided with equal and standard access for legal registration, he said.

The article signals that policy debate has outgrown academic or church circles and entered the public square, said Carol Hamrin, senior associate at the Global China Center and editor of Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China. "It is quite significant that this official government newspaper would publish this interview, which is very detailed and does touch on sensitive issues," she said.

Brent Fulton, president of China Source in Los Angeles, said he was "extremely surprised" that the article appeared in China Daily. "It tells me that the government is willing to float seriously a major change in religious policy," he said. "It really is on the agenda. They're seriously looking at a change."

Fulton said he was also surprised that China Daily published Liu's estimate of 50 million Chinese attending house churches.

"They're saying the [official] Three-Self Church is not the only game in town," he said. "In fact, there are more people outside of it than in it. To make that admission in print is remarkable."

Acknowledging the number of house church members indicates ...

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