A group of Asian and African Anglican leaders who recently returned from a visit to China have praised a decision by the country's ruling Communist Party to include the word "religion" in its constitution.
"This is a recognition of the increasing role that the Church plays in the nation's economic and social development," the Anglican leaders said in a statement issued after their October 21-30 visit. They met church leaders and government officials, and visited theological institutions and sites of relics of early Christian missions.
The church leaders described the decision by the Communist Party during its October 15-21 national party congress to mention the word "religion" in its constitution as "a very significant amendment." It demonstrated that the Chinese government wished to support the work of the Church, they said.
State media said the change had been made to meet the demands posed by the "new situation and new tasks."
The Communist Party for a long time discouraged religion. In recent years, however, Chinese leaders have said that religion can play an important role in creating a "harmonious society." The term is used by the Chinese leaders to refer to the need for economic growth to be accompanied by social cohesion.
"This process of opening up to the world, healthily reforming its institutions and re-affirming religious freedom, with the rules and regulations established, would certainly build up a harmonious, prosperous and stable society," the Anglican leaders stated after their visit to Beijing, Xi'an, Nanjing and Shanghai.
Chinese government statistics in April 2005 said there were "more than 100 million religious adherents" among China's 1.3 billion people, representing a variety of beliefs and practices.
Protestant and Anglican churches in China are united and jointly run by a group called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. They describe themselves as "post-denominational."
The Roman Catholic Church and unregistered or "house" churches also have large followings outside the official church in China.
The Anglican delegation included Nigeria Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, South East Asia Archbishop John Chew from Singapore, as well as Anglican leaders from Central Africa, Congo, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Korea, Rwanda and Uganda.
The Anglican leaders said in their October 31 statement the visit enabled them "to experience the level of cooperation that prevails between the State and the China Christian Council and the National Committee of the Three Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China."