The apparent thaw in relations between the United States and Communist China raises hopes that the Peking government will ease restrictions against Christianity.

No one expects Mao Tse-tung to begin granting visas to foreign missionaries, but there is reason to think that overt suppression of Christian activity in the largest nation in the world may subside somewhat. With Communist leaders opening the borders to Western newsmen, Chinese Christians who have stood by their faith may be allowed to breathe a little easier.

Christian leaders nonetheless reacted cautiously to diplomatic moves made in Washington and Peking. The most enthusiastic response came from United Methodist bishops meeting in San Antonio. They expressed appreciation for the relaxation of tensions but voiced no interest in returning missionaries to China.

R. Arthur Matthews, U. S. director for Overseas Missionary Fellowship, formerly the China Inland Mission, contends that while Communist attitudes may be changing, their goals are not. “The Church is always the enemy of the Communists,” he says, “because it demands a loyalty beyond that accorded the state.” He sees the most immediate effect of the thaw as simply strengthening the hand of Christians there now. Matthews reports that his mission has been getting reports of conversions of young people in the underground church on mainland China, and that the movement shows steadily increasing growth.

Vatican press officer Federico Alessandrini said Red China’s new diplomacy is aimed only at an “economic” thaw, not a “political” one. In an article in the Vatican City daily L’Osservatore Romano, Alessandrini said Mao is merely opening the door to capitalist trade.

Experts on the church scene in Red China say that Red ...

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