BEIJING (Reuters) - China should harness the positive influence of moderate religious believers, including their traditions of benevolence and tolerance, and recognize their contributions to society, the country's top religious affairs official wrote on Tuesday.
The ruling and officially atheist Communist Party, which values stability above all else, has tried to co-opt religion in recent years as a force for social harmony in a country where few believe in communism any more.
Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, wrote in the Communist Party's official People's Daily that even though most people in China have no religion, those who do have an important role to play in promoting harmony.
"We should pay great attention to the eagerness of religious believers," Wang wrote. "Foster the positive contents of religion, expound upon religious doctrines which accord with the development needs of society."
He added, "Guide religious believers to have correct beliefs and follow correct practices, carry out the religious principles of reconciliation, benevolence, tolerance and moderation."
President Xi Jinping wants the party to be more tolerant of traditional faiths in the hope these will help fill a vacuum created by the country's breakneck growth and rush to get rich, sources told Reuters in September.
Believers should be allowed to "earnestly practice what they advocate" and "form a common consensus on promoting social stability and harmony ... under the leadership of the party and the socialist system," Wang added.
About half of China's estimated 100 million religious followers are Christians or Muslims, with the rest Buddhists or Daoists, the government says, though it thinks the real number of believers is probably much higher.
Rights groups say that despite promises to allow freedom of belief, the government in practice enforces tough controls, especially on Christians, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. Beijing has also banned several spiritual groups as "evil cults".
Wang had written in April that the country was struggling to banish superstitious beliefs about events such as sickness and death, and warned against people being misled.
But in his new piece, Wang said that while it was important to crack down on what he called fanaticism and extremism, the country must recognize religious groups that work towards the common good, lest they feel discouraged.
He noted that after the 2010 earthquake in heavily Tibetan Yushu in Qinghai province, the government for the first time included a Tibetan Buddhist temple and a mosque in its formal commendations for relief work.
"This greatly encouraged those in the religious world and believers," Wang added.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)