Premier Zhu Rongji will soon introduce new regulations that will include a formal embrace of Protestants not related to the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church, according to church leaders in China. But two Shanghai-based house-church leaders are skeptical. They warn, "This olive branch, though significant, could have many thorns, and may be painful to grasp."

China's government brands as illegal any Protestant group that refuses to join the TSPM, which has 13.3 million members. This requirement places the independent Protestant churches, with 30 to 70 million members, at risk of closure. Catholics, Muslims, and other religious groups face similar registration requirements.

Few outsiders have seen the draft regulations yet. But some specifics have trickled out. One important element is government recognition of independent churches outside the TSPM structure.

"The redeeming quality is that the non-TSPM stream of Protestants will gain some legitimacy and will be given encouragement to register independently of the TSPM," one source says.

"If the house churches are to be given a welcome at the government's table on their own terms, this is positive," says Carol Lee Hamrin, a China scholar and former analyst with the U.S. State Department. But if the registration requirements sharply limit where pastors may hold evangelistic services, many Protestants may decline the offer.

Meanwhile, China's communists and the Roman Catholic Church are taking steps to improve their rocky relationship. Pope John Paul II recently apologized for Catholic wrongdoing in China.

Observers believe China's leadership will respond by recognizing a role for the Vatican in overseeing the Catholic Church in China. This move could unite 10 million ...

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