BEIJING, MARCH 19, 2005 (Zenit.org).- On March 1 a new law governing religious freedom entered into force in China. According to human rights groups the new regulations promise little improvement for believers who do not wish to follow the official government policy. In fact, the government in recent months seems determined to keep a firm control over religious activities.
A Jan. 17 analysis of the new law by the U.S.-based rights group Compass Direct noted that the “Religious Affairs Provisions” were hailed by the government-run New China News Agency as “a significant step forward in the protection of Chinese citizens’ religious freedom.”
But a close look at the provisions of the new law reveals that, apart from minor modifications, very little is different. Some of the new regulations, in fact, are even more restrictive than the ones they replace, observed Compass Direct.
The guiding principle of the law is contained in Article 3: “Religious bodies, religious venues and believers must uphold the constitution, laws and regulations to safeguard national unity, harmony between the national minorities, and social stability.” The same article also explains that the state will protect normal religious activities. But what is “normal” is never defined, leaving such a judgment completely in the hands of authorities.
Registration of religious groups is still required and restrictions on publishing religious material continue. And for those believers who participate in organizations that do not have official approval the regulations contain severe measures, including heavy fines and the confiscation of property.
The improvements include a safeguarding of property rights, but only of those religious groups with official registration. Recognized organizations are now allowed to set up social service projects, such as schools and clinics.
The law also maintains China’s determination to prohibit overseas contacts. The regulations ban the unofficial organization of overseas pilgrimages, a measure aimed at the more than 20 million Muslims who may wish to travel to Mecca, according to Compass Direct.
In its Jan. 18 analysis of the new law, the Norway-based rights group F18 observed that the regulations maintain the requirement that Chinese religious organizations should function independent of “foreign forces.” This places severe strains on Catholics in China, since it means “they must either sever all ties with the Vatican or seek papal recognition privately,” F18 noted.
Another organization, Human Rights in China, published its analysis of the new law last Monday. The group, founded by Chinese scientists and scholars, affirmed that “the Chinese central government has again drafted a document not to protect, but to regulate all religious activities.”
The organization also noted that the regulations are framed in such a way to leave the door open to arbitrary interpretation and implementation. Overall the group judged that “the premise for the Chinese government to adopt this new set of regulations is not based on the desire to make freedom of religion available to its citizens, but is motivated by its overarching need to regulate freedom of association in the name of national security and public order.”
Recent events show the government’s determination to keep a firm control over religious activities. BBC last Nov. 9 reported on Peter Xu Yongze and his encounter with torture in prison. “They hung me up across an iron gate,” he told BBC, “then they yanked open the gate and my whole body lifted until my chest nearly split in two. I hung like that for four hours.” A evangelical Protestant and leader of a large group, Xu, who now lives in the United States, was imprisoned on five occasions.
Wilfred Wong, a parliamentary officer for the interdenominational lobby group Jubilee Campaign, told BBC that in spite of difficulties the number of Christians in China has continued to rise. But, he added, “China’s new generation of leaders are trying to consolidate control of the country as it goes through rapid social and economic changes.”
Two days later, the Washington Times reported that government officials arrested a Protestant minister. Cai Zhuohua, a minister to six unofficial congregations, was detained in Beijing last September, according to the China Aid Association.
The association said that Cai, his wife, and other members of the family were being held at the Qinghe detention center in Beijing. His arrest came after authorities discovered 200,000 Bibles and other Christian literature in a warehouse under his control.
On Dec. 19 the London-based Telegraph newspaper published an article based on an interview with one of the unofficial Catholic bishops in China, Julius Jia. The bishop has been detained by authorities on more than 30 occasions and overall has spent more than 20 years in jail.
Bishop Jia, 69, is based in Hebei province, in northern China, home to an estimated 1.5 million Catholics. Here, according to the Telegraph, divisions between the government-backed Catholic patriotic church and the underground Church are sharper than anywhere else in the country. The government has placed the bishop under house arrest near Wuqiu. But he frequently circumvents the order by going out to say Mass, often hiding in the back of a car, according to the Telegraph.
Amnesty International, in a report Dec. 21, also noted that Beijing was continuing its hard-line policy against believers. AI commented that the official China Daily had referred to the new law as “a significant step forward in the protection of Chinese citizens’ religious freedoms.”
However, this is in contrast to official actions AI observed, citing the Dec. 1 arrest of church leader Zhang Rongliang in Henan province. The leader has already been imprisoned five times for his beliefs, for a total of 12 years, during which he was severely tortured, declared AI. The police also raided at least three unofficial “house” churches in nearby Fangcheng county, around the time they detained Zhang.
Action against these unofficial churches has been common. The AI press release noted that in July 2003 more than a dozen house churches were reportedly destroyed and at least 300 Christians arrested, some ill-treated and beaten. Moreover, “the new regulations do nothing to reduce the restrictions on underground churches or the persecution that accompany them,” AI said.
More recent news came in an article published Feb. 15 by the Christian Post. During a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., members of underground house churches in China detailed the increasing persecution and torture of Christians.
Among those who gave their accounts was Liu Xianzhi, a member of the South China Church who was arrested in 2001. Liu recounted her experience of torture, abuse and arbitrary imprisonment by police.
The article also noted that the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that China’s arbitrary detentions are a violation of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
On March 10 the group Human Rights Watch issued a declaration calling on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to condemn China during its current annual meeting in Geneva.
In addition to violations of political rights and ill treatment of racial minorities, Human Rights Watch cited worries over the new law governing religious expression that took effect March 1. The requirements placed on organizations by the regulations “are vaguely worded, allowing authorities extraordinary leeway to shut institutions, levy fines, dismiss personnel and censor texts,” said Human Rights Watch. Religious tolerance in China remains elusive.