The Chinese government may consider changes in its religious policy at a major religious affairs conference scheduled for later this month, a senior Chinese house-church leader confirmed in late October.

Government officials in the Religious Affairs Bureau have reportedly approached several respected house church leaders asking them to influence house-church members to consider official registration and to drop what the government sees as their confrontational approach.

At least one leader, however, politely declined to cooperate, fearing that he would become a tool for government manipulation.

Several house church leaders report some easing of pressure since the summer. Possible reasons include China's joining the World Trade Organization and Beijing's obtaining the right to host the 2008 Olympic games, they said.

The Chinese government has also softened its attitude towards the Vatican after Pope John Paul II publicly apologized on October 24 for past mistakes made by Roman Catholic missionaries in China.

Although the Vatican's continued recognition of Taiwan is still a major sticking point, Beijing's conciliatory response is in marked contrast to the hostile rhetoric it employed this time last year when the Pope canonized 120 Chinese Catholic martyrs on China's National Day (October 1).

With a new feeling of conciliation abroad, the results of the forthcoming government conference on religious affairs will be awaited with great interest by Christians both inside China and abroad.

It is too soon to say whether significant advances will be made towards genuine religious freedom or whether changes made will be merely tactical and cosmetic with the aim of further dividing and controlling unregistered Protestant house-churches and underground Catholics.

Related Elsewhere:

See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on persecution in China.

This summer, when Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Christianity Today reported on demands from international human rights groups for China to improve human rights before and during the Games.

The State Department's 2001 International Religious Freedom Report said the Chinese "Government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups."

Previous Christianity Today articles on China include:

Hong Kong Church Leaders Fear Anti-Sect Bill | French legislation may have worldwide consequences. (July 3, 2001)

Calling Out the Name of Jesus | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in China. (March 15, 2001)

Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (March 3, 2001)

The Woman Who Invented China | Pearl S. Buck's tireless work for the weak belied her own disappointment with mainline Christianity. (Feb. 13, 2001)

House Churches May Be 'Harmful to Society' | But China's unofficial congregations resist "evil cult" label. (January 25, 2001)

China's Religious Freedom Crackdown Extends to Foreigners | It is against the law for visitors to teach the Bible in China's house churches. (Nov. 16, 2001)

China's Smack Down | 53 Christian professors, students, and church-planters detained. (Sept. 11, 2000)