THE proper handling of religious problems is vital for the maintenance of national security and consolidation of China's international esteem, according to senior Chinese Communist Party leader Mr Li Ruihuan. Mr Li, a member of the politburo Standing Committee, was speaking to 10 leading religious figures at a spring festival reception in Beijing yesterday. Mr Li, who will soon be made chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said the party's policy towards religion was ''to be united with and to co-operate [with religious figures] in politics, and to show mutual respect in matters of beliefs''. He indicated that religious affairs were not only important, but also complex. ''In many areas, religious issues are interrelated with ethnic problems which in certain cases are further influenced by international factors,'' he said in an apparent reference of alleged efforts by foreign powers to ''stir up troubles'' in Xinjiang and Tibet. Mr Li said the proper handling of religious problems had a crucial implication ''on the protection of the immediate interests of the general public, the maintenance of national security, and the consolidation and enhancement of China's international status''. He urged all levels of party and government organs to attach great importance to religious work and to deal with religious problems properly in a positive and prudent manner. ''When handling our relationship with friends in religious circles, we should uphold the principles of co-operation in political matters and mutual respect in religion,'' he said. ''These two principles are mutually dependent. As long as we can implement these two principles, we will be able to unite patriotic people in the religious circle and the majority of believers.'' The function was also attended by the newly appointed head of the party's United Front Department, Mr Wang Zhaoguo.