NINE-MEMBER religous delegation from China's coastal Fujian province is in Taiwan, paying a 16-day visit to church leaders. The delegation arrived in Taipei on Tuesday to discuss matters relating to the Christian church and the preaching of the gospel. Headed by Zheng Yugui, head of the Fujian College of Theological Studies, the delegation is the first Chinese church delegation on the provincial level to visit Taiwan in four decades. 'About two years ago, some church officials from Beijing . . . visited Taiwan. But this is the first . . . official delegation from the provincial church,' ' said Deng Zhaoming from the Hong Kong-based Christian Study Centre on Chinese Religion and Culture yesterday. Mr Deng described the visit as a breakthrough, saying that it carried a special significance in showing both an 'united front' approach and in expanding religious ties. 'Fujian has blood links with Taiwan,' Mr Deng said. Reverend Tso Man-king, general secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, echoed his sentiments that the visit carried great importance. 'Individuals from the Chinese church had visited Taiwan in private capacities from time to time during the past years. But it is an official invitation this time and the delegation goes on behalf of the Fujian provincial christian church,' Mr Tso said. Yu Xianfeng, a senior official from Fujian's Religious Affairs Bureau, confirmed yesterday that the delegation was sent by Fujian's China Christian Council. 'It is a good-will gesture [from China],' Mr Tso said, adding that it was an indication that Beijing was adopting more flexibility in religious exchanges. The Taiwanese Christian church had visited the mainland, he said, but only on a semi-official basis. 'They could only make exchanges outside the church in the name of culture, such as Taiwanese ethnic music, dances and other performances.' Mr Tso said he had met the delegation while they were in the territory en route to Taipei. They come from five counties in Fujian and some of them are young reverends, he said. Mr Tso said the visit was hosted by the Chinese Laymen's Evangelistic Movement at the initiation of Taiwan-based Reverend John Huang, a Fujian-native. 'I am happy that the visit can be made now, although it is a little bit of a surprise.'