By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, April 21 (Reuters) - China is struggling to get its estimated 100 million religious believers to banish superstitious beliefs about things like sickness and death, the country's top religious affairs official told a state-run newspaper.
Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, said there had been an explosion of religious belief in China along with the nation's economic boom, which he attributed to a desire for reassurance in an increasingly complex world.
While religion could be a force for good in officially atheist China, it was important to ensure people were not mislead, he told the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials.
"For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with birth, ageing, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune, via popularising scientific knowledge," he said, in rare public comments on the government's religious policy.
"But we must realise that this is a long process and we need to be patient and work hard to achieve it," Wang added in the latest issue of the Study Times, which reached subscribers on Sunday.
"Religion has been around for a very long time, and if we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately 'liberate' people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect and push people in the opposite direction."
About half of China's religious followers are Christians or Muslims, with the other half Buddhists or Daoists, he said, admitting the real total number of believers was probably much higher than the official estimate of 100 million.
Wang did not address specific issues, such as what happens after the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama dies, testy relations with the Vatican or controls on Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region in the west.
Rights groups say that despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of belief, the government exercises tight control, especially over Tibetans, Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Christians, many of whom worship in underground churches.
"LURE FOR UNREST"
Beijing also takes a hard line on what it calls "evil cults", like banned spiritual group Falun Gong, who it accuses of spreading dangerous superstition.
Still, while religion was savagely repressed during the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the government has taken a much more relaxed approach since embarking on landmark economic reforms some three decades ago.
The ruling Communist Party, which values stability above all else, has even tried to co-opt religion in recent years as a force for social harmony in a country where few believe in communism any more.
China had avoided the religious extremism which happened in some places with the collapse of the Soviet Union or the religious problems seen with immigrants in Europe and the United States, Wang added, something to be proud of.
Still, China could not rest on its laurels.
"Religion basically upholds peace, reconciliation and harmony ... and can play its role in society," Wang said.
"But due to various complex factors, religion can become a lure for unrest and antagonism. Looking at the state of religion in the world today, we must be very clear on this point." (Editing by Robert Birsel)