A new research unit on Christianity has been formed, apparently in response to the growing number of followers on the mainland. The Christianity Research Centre is affiliated to the institute of world religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and is headed by Professor Zhuo Xinping. Academy vice-president Liu Ji , who officiated at the opening ceremony in Beijing yesterday, said Christianity was the largest religion in the world and, therefore, called for more extensive research in China. Mr Liu said the new centre would help promote the study of Christianity and provide a 'new window' for foreigners to understand China's religious policies. Researchers at the institute said the centre would help co-ordinate institutes carrying out religious studies across the mainland. Observers in Hong Kong had mixed reactions to the formation of the centre. Some said it might indicate a step forward in the liberalisation of religious policy. One said: 'It is another example of the liberalising policy of the new leadership of [premier] Zhu Rongji.' However, another analyst said the creation of the centre was just an attempt by Christian researchers to secure more funding. 'Zhu used to head a research office on Christianity at the academy,' the analyst said. 'With the new centre, the office can carry out more co-operation projects with overseas religious groups and, hence, get bigger budgets.' Beijing has given what are thought to be conservative estimates of the Christian population. It says there are 12 million to 15 million Protestants and six million to eight million Catholics on the mainland. However, foreign Christian organisations have claimed the real combined total is more than 50 million.