A perplexing standoff between a group of foreign Christians and the Guangdong Religious Affairs Bureau ended last week: officials finally renewed the group's licence to continue its regular meetings. The licence gives the Guangzhou International Christian Fellowship (GICF) the legal right to meet for worship at the Star Hotel. It was first issued by the religious affairs bureau in 2000 and has been renewed annually. The licence expired in August and, for reasons that were not explained, its renewal was delayed. The hotel added to the stress by giving the GICF a deadline of yesterday to renew its contract for hotel space or move out. Some GICF leaders said the delay was due to procedural changes at the Religious Affairs Bureau, which includes authorities from the district, city and provincial levels. In the past, city officials alone could renew the licence. This year, provincial officials were involved, said Andrew Kelly, a GICF leader. The bureau officials who have the most contact with the church group are from Tianhe District. Three times a year, they drop by the fellowship, usually unannounced, to check whether any local Chinese are involved in the meetings. Local Chinese are forbidden from participating in worship services. The renewal sidestepped some potential diplomatic trouble. GICF members said if the meetings had been stopped, they would have complained to their consulates, who in turn would have had to make a report to the local Foreign Affairs Bureau. Foreign affairs officials might have had some uncomfortable questions for the Religious Affairs Bureau. 'We were very pleased by the quick response and co-operative spirit of the city,' said Mr Kelly. 'Not only did we get the licence, but this has helped the fellowship and the religious affairs bureau get a better understanding of each other.' To avoid future misunderstandings and improve communications, the fellowship suggested more frequent meetings with bureau officials from the district and city levels. Better late than never. The religious affairs bureau should have quickly explained the reason for the delay. Its 11th-hour renewal of the license seems more an act of self-protection than a genuine desire to accommodate the privileged freedoms of Guangzhou's growing international community. Hopefully, the bureau will respond more efficiently in the future.