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Planned church in Confucius' native city draws protest

China's officially atheist government wants to build a Christian church in the hometown of Confucius to help foster a relationship between an ancient philosophy and the country's fastest-growing religion. But suddenly, it's not going so smoothly.

Confucian groups and 10 well-known scholars are demanding that the Gothic-style church not be built in Qufu, saying its size threatens to overshadow the world's most famous Confucian temple and represents a foreign invasion of a sacred place.

“If a super-large Confucius temple were built in Jerusalem, Mecca or the Vatican, overshadowing the religious buildings there, how would the people feel about it? Would the government and the people accept it?” says an open letter from the protesters that was dated Wednesday and posted on blogs.

Caught in the debate is the church's pastor, a 75th-generation descendant of Confucius. The church means a lot because it will be in the philosopher's hometown, a symbol of Chinese civilization, Kong Xiangling told the state-run Xinhua News Agency this month.

After being attacked as backward during the era of Mao Zedong, Confucius is experiencing a revival. A government-backed biopic starring Chow Yun-fat was released this year, and Beijing is promoting its brand of “soft power” under the philosopher's name overseas, with a growing number of Confucius Institutes for culture and language learning.

Now, Chinese officials are pushing his birthplace in the eastern province of Shandong as a place where ideas on his philosophy and Christianity can be exchanged. They've said the church will include a center to host dialogues on the two civilizations.

But the scholars' protest brings up deeply held cultural concerns about just what being Chinese means.

Confucianism, with its emphasis on morality, proper social relationships and ritual, is seen more as a philosophy than a religion, but it can be considered China's most influential guide. Among the country's five officially recognized religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism — only one, Taoism, is native to China.

China's ruling Communist Party embraces Confucius for use in shaping what it likes to call a “harmonious society,” but it's also stoked the nationalism that objects to the church in Qufu.

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