Religious believers and atheists are political and social equals in China and no discrimination against believers is permitted, according to Peking's religious affairs chief, Xiao Xianfa.
The People's Daily quoted him last week as telling a national Islamic conference here that freedom of religion would remain a long-term and fundamental policy of the Chinese Communist Party for as long as people still believed in religion.
Mr. Xiao, who is director of the government's religious affairs bureau, listed four reasons that Chinese Communists, who are by definition atheists, should allow people the freedom to believe:
* A fairly large number of people in China are believers. This is an objective fact that has to be recognized, he said.
* Religious beliefs belong to the "ideological sphere" of Marxist theory and ideological problems cannot be handled by compulsory measures.
* Allowing freedom of religion would help promote unity and rally all possible forces for China's modernization.
* Many people in other countries believe in religion, and Islam in particular has widespread influence in third world countries, especially in Asia and North Africa.
He said a number of places of worship had been reopened in China since the downfall of the racial "gang of four" leaders were arrested in 1976, shortly after Chairman Mao Tse-tung passed on.
"Believers and nonbelievers must naturally respect each other," the People's Daily reported Mao as saying. But "freedom of religion requires that the socialist road be upheld, requires maintaining the leadership of the Communist Party and maintaining the proletarian dictatorship."
Religion in China has only just started to emerge from more than a decade of Communist suppression, in which most churches, mosques, and temples were smashed up and closed down.