Beijing, Feb. 4--(AP) Two Christian churches are rising in the Chinesecapital for the first time since the Communist Party took power, a strikingdevelopment for a country whose government controls religious practicestightly and is often accused of persecuting underground worshippers.

The Beijing Religious Affairs Office confirmed reports of the new buildingson Wednesday, saying only that the churches in eastern and southwesternBeijing should be completed by Christmas. A staffer in the office, who wouldnot give her name, said construction began in mid-December.

According to the official party newspaper People's Daily, no Christianchurches have been built in Beijing since Mao Zedong's Communists vanquishedChiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in a 1949 civil war and cracked down onreligious expression. "The city seriously lacks ritual places, and thecurrent distribution of religious sites is unbalanced," People's Daily said,citing Na Cang, a member of the Chinese People's Political ConsultativeConference, an advisory group to the government.

The churches were described simply as "Christian," and it was unclear ifthey would be Protestant or Catholic. China's state-sanctioned churches haveno official ties to organizations abroad, including the Vatican.

The number of Christians has grown significantly since the end of Mao'sCultural Revolution in 1976, and many lack places where they can worship.Beijing's few churches are old and cramped; many are dilapidated. "No matterwho builds the new ones, it is good news for believers because they havemore places to go," said Zhao Donghua, head of the religion department atPeking University.

China's government, officially atheist, says it protects religiouspractices, including Christianity. It even encourages Christmas, though as asecular holiday. Rights and religious groups accuse authorities of harassingand arresting anyone who worships outside state-approved churches. The U.S.State Department has consistently criticized the government's treatment ofChristians.

Official figures put the number of Chinese Catholics at 10 million andProtestants at 15 million. But tens of millions more believers belong tounauthorized churches. There is no indication that the approval of two newchurches in the capital signals any change in policy. The government isextremely sensitive about any organized movement that could challenge itsauthority, as evidenced by its strictly enforced ban on the Falun Gongspiritual group.

More likely, it represents an effort by an increasingly savvy leadership toentice Chinese Christians into joining the state-backed faith, thus makingthem abandon their underground congregations and rendering them less of athreat. "Building new churches is indeed a new step, and it's a goodpublicity move," said Rudolf Wagner, chairman of the Institute of ChineseStudies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. "There's a doublehandedapproach - crack down on anything that's not registered activity and pullpeople into the government-sponsored churches," Wagner said. "It couldrepresent an offer - you can go legal, if you stay within the rules."

Zhao hinted at this notion as well, saying the new structures would "beappealing to those members of family churches" - the Chinese government'sterm for the predominantly rural underground churches that it hasoutlawed.

Known in China for centuries, Christianity took root in the mid-1800s,spread by missionaries accompanying European and American traders who set upcolonial enclaves along its east coast. When the communists took power, theyordered Chinese to cut ties with their religious brethren abroad.

The church construction coincides with government attempts to court Chinesemembers of other religions. In Xinjiang, the government says it is trying toassure Muslims their faith is protected as long as no subversive activity istaking place. And Buddhist temples are being restored elsewhere.

Wagner sees the church projects as another indication that the Chineseleadership is seeking a cultural balance, be it secular or religious."Chinese leaders have been trying to create spaces for some sort of privacyfor their people. So you can have a very free discussion in China of whatcolor tile you want in your bathroom," Wagner said.

"Religion, as long as it stays within rigid bounds, comes into thatcategory," he said. "You can privately do your thing, as long as you don'tset up an organization or break up the monopoly of the party."Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may notbe published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.