Historians and clerics from Hong Kong, the mainland, Taiwan and overseas will gather in the city for the first time next year to discuss the role of Christian churches in China during the Boxer Rebellion. The topic has long been considered sensitive due to the links between foreign missionaries and western nations that were expanding their influence over the declining Qing dynasty. The canonisation of Christians killed during the rebellion has been the source of friction between China and the Vatican. Organisers say about 30 historians and clerics will attend the June conference, which aims to shed new light on religious developments in contemporary China. Peter Ng Tze-ming, director of Chinese University's Centre for the Study of Religion and Chinese Society, which is organising the conference with the Catholic Church's Holy Spirit Study Centre, said talks would be 'purely academic'. 'We don't want it to become politicised,' Professor Ng said. 'In a way the focus is beyond the Boxer Rebellion as we will look at the evolution of the Christian churches before and after the [period]. 'The incidents at the time actually helped the churches to increase their wisdom, and changes introduced after the incidents were positive and helped the Christian movement.' The Catholic Church in Hong Kong was plunged into a row with Beijing in October 2000 after Pope John Paul canonised 120 Chinese martyrs - many killed during the 1898 to 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The central government denounced the move as an insult to the Chinese nation, saying most of the missionaries and believers were executed at the time for committing crimes when imperialists were invading China. The local Catholic Church was at the time allegedly told by Beijing to keep celebrations of the canonisation 'low key', a move that led to a deterioration of relations with the local diocese. Analysts said the incident also contributed to the frosty Sino-Vatican relations. But Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, said that although the issue remained a sensitive one for the central government, the conference was unlikely to stir its wrath. '[The Catholic Church] has already published articles vindicating the martyrs in the past, and we are not trying to lobby Beijing through this academic conference,' Mr Lam said. 'We will try to steer clear of disputes but concentrate on how the church has helped social development in China.' It is understood that Beijing is aware of the international conference, as the religious department of Chinese University has maintained good relations with mainland authorities. Academics from the mainland and Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan will be among those attending the event.