By Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Justice Ministry has ordered lawyers to take a loyalty oath to the Communist Party, in an unusual move that has drawn condemnation from attorneys worried about the government's attempts to rein them in.

The ministry issued a notice on Wednesday demanding that first-time applicants and lawyers who want to renew their licenses have to take the oath.

The oath was necessary to "firmly establish among the vast circle of lawyers faith in socialism with Chinese characteristics ... and effectively improve the quality of lawyers' political ideology", the ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

"I promise to faithfully fulfill the sacred mission of socialism with Chinese characteristics ... loyalty to the motherland, its people, and uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China," lawyers must say under the oath.

This is the first time that lawyers have been required to pledge allegiance to the Party in an oath, Mo Shaoping, a prominent human rights lawyer, said.

The Party has always been wary of lawyers, who they suspect could challenge one-party rule through the advocacy of the rule of law.

"I think it's inappropriate," Mo told Reuters by telephone. "As a lawyer, you should only pay attention to the law and be faithful to your client."

The new rule comes as Communist Party chiefs are preparing for a tricky leadership handover later this year, when the party's long-standing focus on fending off political challenges is likely to intensify.

"If the oath says you must be faithful to the Communist Party and accept the leadership of the Party, that may exclude many other people in the legal profession who belong to other political parties or have other religious beliefs," Mo said.

"The oath will hurt the development of the Chinese legal system."

Over the past decade, a loose network of lawyers has sought to use litigation mixed with publicity to challenge laws and policies restricting citizens' movements and rights to protest.

PRODUCING CONFLICT?

Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer who has often represented people in sensitive political cases, called the oath "baffling".

"I don't see the legal basis for adding these procedures. On what basis is the Ministry of Justice doing this?" Pu told Reuters by telephone. "If I don't take the oath, are you not going to give me a license?"

Pu said the oath "will produce a conflict" among lawyers who want to be independent from enforcing the will of the party.

"In my opinion, the biggest destroyer of the rule of law in China is the Communist Party," he said.

Although the Party has always imposed tight controls on lawyers, the pressure has intensified in the past year.

In 2011, dozens of human rights lawyers were detained without charge as China cracked down on potential political challengers amid fears that the anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Arab world could inspire protests against one-party rule.

China's best known rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, was sent back to jail last December, though he appeared never to have escaped secretive confinement in the first place.

Gao was sentenced to three years' jail in 2006 for "inciting subversion of state power", a charge often used to punish critics of one-party rule.

(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel)