SHANGHAI — LUO MENGFAN first attended services with a friend at Shanghai's Xujiahui Cathedral four months ago.
Now, the young fashion design student is a regular church-goer, undeterred by government disapproval of religious activities or the materialism captivating many of China's youth today.
``The government doesn't want us to believe this religion. It says this is bad. So we have to believe ourselves in our hearts,'' she said as she left church one Sunday.
As China roils with new controversy over suppression of religious dissent and unrest, growing numbers of Chinese, especially youth, are turning to religion as an anchor.
In the last year, Chinese authorities have vacillated in their stance on religious activity, which is feared as a threat to Communist control, but remains key to the country's overall profile on human rights. In June, the Clinton administration is due to decide whether China has made enough concessions on human rights to extend to the Chinese tariff advantages in the American market. In a recent visit to Beijing, John Shattuck, United States undersecretary of state for human rights, said, ``The issue of freedom of religion is one that we are looking at very closely.''
China is pushing to normalize relations with the Vatican and last fall welcomed visits from two papal emissaries, Western diplomats say.
Last November, authorities released two elderly Catholic bishops loyal to the Vatican in a goodwill gesture toward the Roman Catholic Church.
But in early February the government forbade proselytizing by foreigners and moved to curb unauthorized church activities. Recently, seven foreign Christians were detained in central Henan Province, and then expelled from China.
Officials said about 8 million Protestants and Catholics attend state-approved churches, which gain about 1 million new members each year. But Chinese and foreign religious observers say the numbers of ``secret'' worshipers in independent churches is much higher, and underground churches are increasingly active.
At the same time, Hong Kong has become a base for a growing community of international churches that are turning their missionary zeal from Eastern Europe to China, a trend that alarms Beijing.
US human rights groups monitoring religious activity report a recent rise in the arrest of underground Christian leaders for religious reasons.
``The situation for us is very bad. Many priests and others are in hiding because they are afraid of arrest,'' says a Chinese Christian activist in Shanxi Province, a center for underground church activity where officials in recent months have admitted that unsanctioned religious activity has ``run rampant.''
Aware of religion's role in the collapse of communism in Europe, what Beijing fears most is the decline of state-sanctioned churches, the spread of unofficial faiths, and growing contacts between Chinese and foreign religious organizations.
As Islamic fervor has risen in central Asia, Beijing has struggled to keep tight control over the western provinces of Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Gansu, where restive Muslim populations resent strong-armed Chinese rule and the economic encroachment of the majority Han Chinese.
Christianity is also on the upswing, most notably among young people, Chinese observers say. With Marxist ideology discredited by market-style economic reforms and sweeping social change challenging traditional Confucian values, a growing number of Chinese youth say they are filling the vacuum with religion.
``I try to get to church as often as possible,'' says a young journalist in Beijing. ``It gives me something to believe in. I feel peace in my heart.''