`Beijing is attempting to stop university students taking part in religious activities as part of its campaign to keep young intellectuals from drifting away from communist ideology.
Minister of Education Chen Zhili told heads of party committees in universities at a recent meeting to step up vigilance against the infiltration of Western liberal thinking and the spread of religion on campuses.
Party organisations were asked to discourage students from taking part in religious activities such as attending Sunday services, party sources said.
Cadres in charge of party affairs in universities had been repeatedly told to guard against banned groups such as the Falun Gong [..], but sources said they were surprised that even mainstream religions were being targeted.
"I could not believe my ears when I first heard this because it violates the constitution," a source said.
"And it is not only applicable to Communist Party members, but all students."
The constitution guarantees citizens religious freedom but the party officially bans members from practising religion.
The move also contradicts signals given by Beijing recently that it was willing to increase tolerance towards mainstream religions to pre-empt the influence of groups such as the Falun Gong.
Analysts said Ms Chen's speech was more a reflection of the party's growing unease about its dwindling influence on young intellectuals rather than a reaction to a particular trend.
They said there was no evidence to show there was a significant rise in the number of Christian believers, or followers of other religions, among students.
Some analysts also doubted the authorities could carry out the order as it is no longer easy for the party to dictate the personal life of students, especially those who are not party members.
In recent meetings, Ms Chen has urged party cadres to "conquer the territory of public opinions in universities using Marxist theories" and study political statements by President Jiang Zemin to help students to form a "correct world view and values towards life".
She also warned party cadres to be vigilant against the spread of Western values.
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