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

The Beijing Religious Affairs Office confirmed reports of the new buildings on Wednesday, saying only that the churches in eastern and southwestern Beijing should be completed by Christmas. A staffer in the office, who would not give her name, said construction began in mid-December.

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

The churches were described simply as "Christian," and it was unclear if they would be Protestant or Catholic. China's state-sanctioned churches have no official ties to organizations abroad, including the Vatican.

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

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

Official figures put the number of Chinese Catholics at 10 million and Protestants at 15 million. But tens of millions more believers belong to unauthorized churches. There is no indication that the approval of two new churches in the capital signals any change in policy. The government is extremely sensitive about any organized movement that could challenge its authority, as evidenced by its strictly enforced ban on the Falun Gong spiritual group.

More likely, it represents an effort by an increasingly savvy leadership to entice Chinese Christians into joining the state-backed faith, thus making them abandon their underground congregations and rendering them less of a threat. "Building new churches is indeed a new step, and it's a good publicity move," said Rudolf Wagner, chairman of the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. "There's a doublehanded approach - crack down on anything that's not registered activity and pull people into the government-sponsored churches," Wagner said. "It could represent an offer - you can go legal, if you stay within the rules."

Zhao hinted at this notion as well, saying the new structures would "be appealing to those members of family churches" - the Chinese government's term for the predominantly rural underground churches that it has outlawed.

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

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

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

"Religion, as long as it stays within rigid bounds, comes into that category," he said. "You can privately do your thing, as long as you don't set up an organization or break up the monopoly of the party." Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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