From 1st March, the new regulations on religions will be implemented in China. While the government claims that the law will protect freedom of faith, critics are appearing among Chinese Christians in both Mainland China and Hong Kong.
At a lengthy 48 articles and seven chapters, the new Regulations on Religious Affairs will replace the old ones. They cover everything from how licensed organisations can accept religious donations and claim tax exemptions to how religious institutions may accept foreign students, among other topics. The State Council, which formulated the new rules, assured that they protect freedom of religion in China.
In response to the launch of the new religious law, AsiaNews, a Catholic-based newspaper, interviewed Anthony Lam, an expert on the Church in China at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a research institute of the Diocese of Hong Kong. Lam analysed that in fact the new religious laws do not seem to give more freedom to religions. In contrast, it can even be used as a way to persecute religious activities, as many Christians and human rights groups have suggested.
Under existing laws, Chinese communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches, temples or mosques. Millions of believers attend unauthorised services, often in private homes, but are subject to arrest and harassment.
The new rules say that "anyone who compels citizens to believe in or not believe in any religions...shall be ordered to make corrections by the religious affairs department" and could face criminal charges.
This law has been said to have the aim of reinforcing the protection of the "normal" religious activities in the wake of the rise of the Falun Gong movement which the Chinese authorities have defined as a cult. However, research director of the New York-based Human Rights in China, criticised that it also means "religious activities expressly authorised by the state through a system of compulsory licensing and mandatory inspections" and indirectly affects the faithful.
On the annual legislative session on Saturday 5th March in Beijing, China will ban many religious or spiritual groups, including the Falun Gong movement and churches loyal to Pope John Paul II. It also tightly controls Tibetan Buddhism.
The implementation of the new religious law has particularly drawn the concern of Hong Kong people. Under "one country, two system", Hong Kong people are legally entitled to enjoy freedom of religion after the 1997 handover. As the Beijing government is using its regulatory powers in every possible way to hold back the religious renaissance currently sweeping in the country, Hong Kong's citizens' religious rights are also being threatened.
On the 1st July 2004, the 7th anniversary of the handover took place, and tens of thousands of Christians in Hong Kong held prayer meetings and demonstrated on the streets to protest against the implementation of the new religious law.
Despite these worries, there are two new guidelines that are welcomed by Christians, according to Anthony Lam. First of all, there is article 6 on the legal responsibility of the Religious Affairs Office. In case of abuse, people can appeal to the Supreme Court.
Secondly, religious organisations can now own real property. Before, they had no legal existence and the state could only lend land for temples or churches, but religious groups did not own it. However, Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists and other religions now have the legal title to their land and buildings.
It is indeed very useful as the Catholic Church bought many properties during the 19th and 20th centuries in China. In Shanghai, for example, it owned a square kilometre in the Xujiahui area (which is now a central part of the city) and the current value of this is in the billions of dollars. If the Church is able to prove that it is the legal owner it can at least appeal to the government demanding compensation.
In a 2003 report from the US State Department, China "tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the government and the Chinese Communist Party." The report graded the government's respect of religious freedom "poor."