A series of recent clashes between the Chinese government and a variety of spiritual groups indicates that religion--more than traditional kinds of political dissent--has emerged in the eyes of the Communist Party as one of the most serious threats to its monopoly on power.

Last week, an important Tibetan Buddhist lama whose loyalty China had tried to cultivate surfaced in India, where he had fled into exile. Then, Beijing roiled the Vatican by appointing five Roman Catholic bishops in defiance of the pope. And as the government crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation movement continued, President Jiang Zemin made a striking announcement that the massive campaign was one of the "three major political struggles" of 1999--marking the first time since China's 1949 Communist revolution that smashing an apolitical, spiritual organization has been an official priority of the party.

Western diplomats and human rights groups report that the crackdown is spreading to China's network of Catholic and Protestant "house churches," which serve an estimated 30 million to 40 million believers who worship illegally in private homes. Since December, Beijing has used a law outlawing Falun Gong to brand 10 Christian sects as illegal "cults." More than 100 Christian leaders have been arrested, said Frank Lu, head of the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

"While China continues to jail any democracy activist it can find, these days the Communists are really concerned about religions," Lu said. "They realize there is a spiritual void in China. They know most people are cynical about politics, so they won't follow the democratic activists. But they will follow a new messiah."

Indeed, China on the cusp of a new century is witnessing what even state-run publications call a "golden age" for religion. The government officially sanctions five religions: Buddhism, which now has 100 million adherents; Islam, with 18 million; Protestantism, with 15 million; Catholicism, with 4 million; and smaller numbers of Taoists. However, unapproved cults, sects and underground religions are prospering--from temple gods in the northwest and ancestral worship in the south to the house-church movement in China's agricultural heartland. In many cases, the government has tolerated the renaissance, and some government officials and Communist Party members have defied central government dictates by practicing religion openly themselves.

Now, however, the Communists find themselves in a quandary. As society has grown envious of the wealth and freedom enjoyed in the West and the government has moved to embrace free enterprise, traditional Communist ideology--that of Marxism-Leninism, leavened by the thinking of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping--has lost much of its appeal.

The editor of one of China's largest newspapers said that he and other party members feel as though China is "at the end of a dynasty, when traditionally all sorts of cults and sects rose up and challenged the emperor's rule."

The struggle against Falun Gong, Catholics loyal to the pope, cults, Tibetan Buddhists and other independent-minded religious groups, the editor said, could very well be the defining political battle of the next few years in China. He and other analysts say they believe the party's program is already backfiring. "Look at Falun Gong," said Sima Nan, an independent filmmaker who opposes both Falun Gong and the government crackdown. "The more the government squeezes the practitioners, the more it turns them into martyrs."

"You never know how the Chinese cookie is going to crumble," said a Western diplomat. "Religion has as good a chance as any development to move the process along."

A 1999 State Department report placed China near the top of a list of countries that suppress religion. China's Communists "perceive unregulated religious gatherings as a potential challenge to their authority . . . and an alternative to Communist dogma," the report said. It added that a ban on the sale of law enforcement equipment to China should continue unless its "serious violations of religious freedoms" cease.

To curtail religious practices, police had used "prolonged detention, torture and reeducation of Tibetan monks and nuns . . . [and] some Protestant and Catholic Christians," the report said. China's Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council called the report "unfounded" and said, "This is the best time for all the religions in Chinese history."

The apparent increase in religious persecution follows a period in which China seemed to be growing more tolerant in spiritual matters. In 1998, China opened a dialogue with American clerics, and it signed the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It rebuilt or approved the reconstruction of thousands of temples destroyed during the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. But by supporting traditional qigong--an ancient practice in which inner energy is marshaled to improve physical and spiritual health--the Beijing government encouraged the spread of Falun Gong and other groups like it.

But as religion has become more widely embraced, the party has reacted with vain attempts to reassert control over the thoughts of its citizens. The Falun Gong crackdown, for example, has been accompanied by exhortations to the public to study Marxism and atheism.

Chinese analysts say each of the spiritual movements--including Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhism, house churches and Catholicism--represents a distinct threat to Party authority.

Falun Gong, for example, marks the first time since 1949 that large numbers of China's workers have joined an organization not affiliated with the Communists, according to Wang Shan, an independent political analyst here. Millions have flocked to the group because it provides them with spiritual sustenance at a time of dizzying social dislocation. It also tells them that if they embrace Falun Gong's spiritual and physical exercises, they won't need doctors--an appealing notion at a time when China's free medical system has virtually collapsed.

"It's the first proletarian movement since liberation that the party doesn't control," Wang said. "Of course, the party is afraid."

Since declaring the organization illegal in July, China has jailed more than 1,500 practitioners. Last month, some Falun Gong leaders were sentenced to 18 years in prison--longer terms than any traditional political dissident has been given in recent years.

While Beijing is attempting to smash Falun Gong, it has tried a different approach toward Tibetan Buddhism. Since the 1980s, the government has tolerated the practice while endeavoring to co-opt Tibetan political and religious figures to ensure that the massive territory stays under Chinese rule. Contrary to Beijing's expectations, however, the return of religion to Tibet has fanned anti-Chinese sentiment, not squelched it.

The defection of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Lama to India on Wednesday underscores the difficulty China has had winning over Tibetan leaders. The 14-year-old Karmapa Lama, generally recognized as the third most powerful religious figure in Tibet, had been assiduously cultivated by his Chinese minders. They gave him "patriotic" education sessions, introduced him to President Jiang and honored him at National Day ceremonies in 1994.

The London-based Tibet Information Network said Saturday that it believes China had planned to use the Karmapa Lama to undermine the widespread support Tibetans still express for the Dalai Lama--the spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists--who fled to India after a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. China had forbidden the Karmapa Lama to visit his teachers in India, despite earlier assurances from Chinese authorities that he would have access to his mentors, the London group said.

On a third front, the Beijing government's decision to snub Pope John Paul II and ordain five bishops on Thursday--the same day the pontiff appointed 12 bishops in Rome--indicates that the party means to tolerate no affront from religion to its agenda.

The Vatican and China broke off relations in 1951; since then, the papacy has maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province and is fighting to reunify it with the mainland, has demanded that the Vatican break ties with Taiwan before it considers improving relations with the pope.

By appointing its own bishops to China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church, Beijing was also warning both the Vatican and Chinese who remain loyal to the pope to drop their support of underground churches.

The illegal house-church groundswell of both Protestants and Catholics is the country's fastest-growing Christian movement. "China wants to put the lid on the house churches," said Lu, the Hong Kong-based rights activist. "Beijing cannot tolerate uncontrolled faith, especially faith that expresses loyalty to a foreign government. The Communists have no faith anymore. The thing they fear most is people who believe."