New Regulations in China Have No Effect on Religious Freedom

The Human Rights Watch reported that in the year after the regulations took effect the government continues to suppress religious activities deemed outside of its 'state-controlled system.'
( [email protected] ) Mar 03, 2006 10:38 AM EST

A human rights monitor reported the situation of China's religious freedom a year since the nation issued its Regulations on Religious Affairs.

The Human Rights Watch reported, Wednesday, that in the year after the regulations took effect the government continues to suppress religious activities deemed outside of its "state-controlled system," despite claiming to promote religious freedom.

"Chinese officials claim the new regulations safeguard religious freedom through the rule of law, but the intentional vagueness of the regulations allows for continued repression of disfavored individuals or groups," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "There's nothing accidental about the vagueness – it gives officials the room they need to legitimize closing mosques, raiding religious meetings, 'reeducating' religious leaders, and censoring publications."

The organization cited an increase in government activities to suppress religious meetings, literature and religious education for minors. Government officials, however, continue to insist to visiting foreign dignitaries that children "could receive religious instruction," says Human Rights Watch.

Gatherings of believers and professional clergy, especially with individuals from different regions, often attract government scrutiny and arrests. Last year in August, police raided a training session for Sunday school teachers in Jiangxi province, detaining 35 high school and university students present.

The March 1, 2005 regulations guaranteed constitutional religious protection for Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, believers are required to safeguard ‘unification of the country…and stability of society’ and eschew ‘foreign domination,’ Human Rights Watch stated.

Though religious institutions are encouraged to be self-governing and independent, all religious sites are required to accept the supervision of the government’s religious affairs department, and report their income and expenditures.

The mainland government accepts only five belief systems – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, though Chinese officials were reportedly considering the acceptance of Judaism, the Orthodox Church, the Baha’I Faith and the Mormon Church.

Though Catholicism and Protestantism is openly accepted, unregistered organizations under these religious groups are not permitted to meet for worship. Believers refusing to register with the government often meet in undisclosed locations – often called house churches, since they meet in private homes and residencies. Though house churches are independent, they are often associated in some way with the larger, hierarchical religious groups.

Influential priests and bishops in Hebei province, an enclave for underground Catholic churches, have often experienced arrests and harassment in the past months. Such individuals are often sent to "reeducation" sessions to force them into joining the Catholic Patriotic Association, keeping them in line with the government-approved Chinese Catholic church. Nonetheless, when meeting of Catholics remain small, government officials to often turn a blind eye. A substantial number of reported arrests by various monitor-groups tended to occur during large, public masses and important Catholic feasts and gatherings.

One issue involving Catholics in China includes disputes over former church properties, which were seized after being nationalized. This comes in contradiction to a statues in Article 30, of the 2005 regulations; "‘land legally used by a religious body or a site...’ and the ‘structures and facilities legally owned by such a body or site... are protected by law. It may not be encroach[ed] upon, loot[ed]... [and] confiscate[ed]...’"

In a major case involving a Xian church, that was nationalized in 1982 and sold to developers in 2003, several nuns were beaten and injured by unknown assailants while trying to stop the demolition of their former property.

Protestants associated with unregistered organizations have not fared better than their Catholic counterparts. Shortly after the regulations were in place, police crackdowns on house churches in Shanxi, Henan, Hubei and Jiangxi provinces began.

Some house churches chose not to not register, while others were simply denied when attempting to. Protestant dominations that have refused to follow the status quo include Methodists, Anglicans and Lutherans. The government has often referred to the members of such denominations as fundamentalists, and does not believe that such organizations could fit in with their "doctrinal or liturgical traditions."

In 2005, police often under accompanied with Public Security Bureau officers initiated raids on large-scale meetings, especially those that involved leadership training sessions. Inter-provincial and citywide gatherings have often been targeted as well.

Yesterday, a Bible school in the Anhui province was raided by 50-60 policemen, resulting in the arrest of 36 teachers and students. No less than a thousand copies of literature were confiscated as well. The personnel detained included individuals hailing from Beijing city, the inner-Mongolia region, and the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu Zhejiang, Shandong and Hunan. All 36 detainees were released later the same day.

According to the Mar. 1 Human Rights Watch report, training meetings tend to be viewed with hostility by the Communist Party and government seeking to indoctrinate "new generations of ‘patriotic’ religious leader." The organization also reported that targeted churches tended to be those that tried to increase its membership.

In addition to suppressing church growth, the government has been known to enforce its control on religious publications, as reported by various persecution-watch groups. In one notable case, house church leader Cai Zhuohua and a few of his colleagues were arrested in November last year on charges of "illegal business practices" involving the sales of thousands of copies of Christian literature. Cai argued in his defense that he was trying to fulfill an unmet demand. The printing of religious materials is currently under the control of the Regulations on Administration of the Printing Industry.

The Chinese government continues to be under pressure to improve its religious freedom policies especially in light of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Though in the past year the government has allowed the establishment of more church buildings and seminaries, continual reports of Christian persecution has sapped the optimism of many believers in China. Whether Beijing will address the situation of unregistered house church believers remains unknown at this moment.