China Unveils New Rules for Religions

Control Still Seen as a Hallmark of Government Policy

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ROME, DEC. 20, 2004 ( China has published new regulations to «guarantee religious freedom,» but a Church-related news agency cautioned that the rules reconfirm minute control over people, places and activities.

The new guidelines, which take effect March 1, were reported by the Xinhua agency. They replace the 1994 regulations for the administration of religious places.

The first chapter of the regulations affirms the state’s commitment to «guaranteeing religious freedom and harmony between religions and in society,» said AsiaNews. The text states that in China no one is to be discriminated against for his faith.

Though the chapter does not define religion in any way, it does set the limit of such freedom: «the promotion of state unity, solidarity of the population, stability of society.»

It then refers to the principles of the «Three Autonomies» (self-administration, self-support and self-propagation) to prevent subservience to the power of foreign countries. China considers the Vatican a foreign country.

The text goes on to set the conditions for the opening of new places of worship, educational structures, and religious activities, which must all register with the government.

In what amounts to a new development, the regulations specifically set out the bureaucratic procedures for registration, calling into play local, provincial and national governments, and setting the time frame for the presentation of applications and the rendering of decisions, which must be within 30 days of the application.

Such procedures became necessary as numerous non-official Protestant communities have complained that their applications for registration are simply not accepted and thus are turned down without being processed.

The new regulations condemn the abuse of power by local authorities or the Religious Affairs Office.

So far, figures of authority have been known to expropriate property, levy taxes and make arrests on the basis of their own personal interests, while pocketing the goods and taxes extorted from religious communities under the threat of expropriations and imprisonment, said AsiaNews.

Now, according to the new regulations, «if a government official for Religious Affairs, while carrying out his duties, abuses his authority or uses if for personal purposes, such person commits a crime punishable by law. In the case of minor infractions, disciplinary action and fines will be applied.»

This, however, does not mean that communities will enjoy greater freedom: permission is required for each place or person involved in worship.

For example, to build a place of worship, a group must obtain permission from the local government, then from the next level of government, then from the provincial government. At this point, construction can begin. Upon completion and before the building is put into use, another government permit is required.

Meanwhile, the Religious Affairs office must check that places of worship respect laws, regulations and the constitution and must verify all the activities in and around the group.

Yet, communities face the same restrictions as in the past, said AsiaNews. Communities must avoid influencing state education and can publish books and produce religious products but can sell them only from their places of
worship. This means that they cannot work on spreading their faith in society at large.

The biggest discrimination is that believers can exercise their religious freedom only if officially registered, AsiaNews said. For Beijing, religious freedom is not an inalienable right, but is conceded by the state.

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