Top Communist Party leader Jia Qinglin urged the country's religious groups yesterday to maximise the 'positive role' of religion in boosting social harmony, Xinhua reported.
Mr Jia, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said during a meeting with religious leaders in Beijing that religion could play an important role in building 'a harmonious society' - a watchword for President Hu Jintao's administration.
Fu Tieshan, the ailing Catholic bishop of Beijing and chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, attended the meeting along with leaders of other religions including Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism.
In a growing sign that Beijing is turning to religion as part of its political campaign to ease social tensions, Mr Jia urged religious groups to regard boosting harmony as an important part of their work and search for ways for religion to serve society and the people.
During the past year, the central government has shown rare enthusiasm for organising religious forums, once considered 'opium of the masses' under orthodox communist doctrine.
During the meeting, Mr Jia advised religious groups to 'make a conscious effort to interpret the religious doctrines in a way that can promote social development'.
'Positive elements [from the religious doctrines] that can help enhance social harmony should be promoted, while those negative influences detrimental to social harmony must be eradicated,' he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
He also advised religious groups to assist the government in the handling of relations between religious and non-religious people, and people of different religious beliefs.
The meeting came after the publication of a landmark research paper last week which reported that China could have three times as many religious believers as previously thought - an unsettling sign for Beijing policymakers who tend to take religion as a threat.