09/23/2016, 09.51
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Beijing issues new, harsh draft regulations on religious activities

by Bernardo Cervellera

Fines of up to 200 thousand yuan (27 thousand euro) for "illegal religious activities" by Catholic or other members of underground communities. "Illegal activities" include "dependence from abroad" (such as the relationship with the Vatican). The regulations preach non-discrimination, but party members are forbidden to practice their religion, even in private. Strict control of buildings, statues, crosses. Clampdown on the internet. It could be the end of the underground community.

Rome (AsiaNews) - A new set of draft regulations on religious activity has been issued in China. These would replace the 2004 regulations. Compared to these, the draft is longer: there are 74 articles spread over nine chapters, (in 2004 there were only 48 articles). New to this draft is the inclusion of norms for the construction of religious buildings and statues (after the demolition campaign of crosses and churches); diverse rules governing the use of the internet; clarifications on Buddhist religious personnel (Tibetan) as well as Catholic. The amount of fines that are imposed on those who break the rules has also been adjusted. Now there will be penalties of up to 200 thousand yuan (over 27 thousand euro: the minimum wage in Shanghai is a bit less than 300 Euros) for "illegal religious activities " or foreign travel and pilgrimages without government consent.

Contradictions within the Party
In itself, the draft, published on  September 8 on the State Council for Legislative Affairs website, was made public to allow for any corrections, suggestions and amendments until October 7. But a Party member confessed laconically to AsiaNews: "It is said that it is a draft, but it really is the definitive text."

The ideological structure of the new text remains firmly in the communist domain: religious activities, to be expressed, must be screened and controlled by the state at all levels; village, county, state, country.
Without defining what a religion is or religious experience, the regulations (Art. 2) begin proclaiming that in China "citizens enjoy religious freedom", that no one "can force a person to believe or not to believe "and that" ... no organization can discriminate against citizens who believe in a religion".

This statement is in contradiction to what is happening within the Chinese Communist Party itself, where for years it has been preached that members can not adhere to any religion even in private, not even after they retire.

Although there is no definition of religion, the first part of the draft lists a long series of things that religions "must not do": cause conflict with other religions or non-believers; provoke ethnic divisions; favor religious extremism; divide the nation; practice terrorism (art. 4).

“Sinicized” religions without foreigners

To be "under the law", religions must be "guided" by the government of the people, by the departments of Religious Affairs, the county and village authorities who have the right to intervene in religious activities (art. 6).

In addition, each religious group "must adhere to the principle of independence and self-government" and "not be controlled by foreign forces" (art. 5). These principles are a tradition from the times of Mao Zedong, who at first wanted to destroy religion and then – when this proved impossible - at least control them with an iron fist with the patriotic associations, giving rise to "independent" churches and community. But these principles have taken on a new emphasis after President Xi Jinping’s speech to the United Front last year, in which he warned against "foreign influences" and decreed that if the religions want to live in China they must "sinicize ". The negative psychosis operated on foreign religions refers to Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetan Buddhists, but also the Pope and the Vatican who, with the appointment of bishops, are suspected of conspiracy and of "interference in China's internal affairs".

This "sinicization" also deals a blow to foreign personnel who may be invited to "religious schools" (seminaries, monasteries, etc.). Art. 17 provides that institutions cannot invite staff from abroad, and that permission can only be granted by the " State Council Department of Religious Affairs". This fruits of this can already be seen: theological seminaries such as Beijing, which once housed dozens of foreign professors, now can barely obtain permission for two or three.

The places of worship and crosses

A complicated process has been introduced for the approval of the construction of places of worship, with applications passing month to month through all levels of government; only then can a place of worship be built, but then it will take even more months to apply for registration for use (Articles 19-27). Special permits are required to install religious statues outside of places of worship (Art. 29-30). In addition to permission, the religious community must accept the verification of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In any case "the construction of large religious statues outside of temples and churches is prohibited".

The ban reflects the demolition campaign carried out against the crosses and churches in Zhejiang launched two years ago to reduce the visibility of the Christian buildings, which hoisted large crosses on top of buildings or towers. In addition to destroying buildings that had already received building permits, the provincial government issued norms which regulated the height, position, size and even the color of the crosses.

Controlling the buddha and bishops

Chap. V (arts. 36-39) regards  "religious personnel", who exercise ministry.  They must be registered with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. There are two specific points. The first refers to the "living Buddha" of Tibetan Buddhism, whose reincarnation "must be submitted for approval to the department for religious affairs of the people's government". The Party-government established this rule years ago, which seeks to prevent the possibility of an "uncontrolled" or "not approved" reincarnation the Dalai Lama.

Another specific point regards Catholic bishops, who must be registered with the nation’s departments of religious. It is also specified that "those that have not obtained or have lost religious professional credentials, must not engage in activity as religious professionals" (n. 36). Many  Catholics are concerned that this subparagraph might harden the government's stance towards unofficial bishops, who are not registered with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and that therefore commit "illegal or outlawed actions" if they dare to celebrate a Mass or distribute the Sacraments.

The end of the underground community?

The same can be deduced from the Chap. VII on "legal responsibility", where "illegal" religious activities will be punished "according to law" and result in a revocation of "the registration certificate."

Many Chinese dioceses have been signaling to us that the government is licit and illicit means to push unofficial priests to register with the Ministry. Sadly – although not specifically mentioned in the Regulations - such registration occurs through the Patriotic Association (PA), which is the control body, whose statutes (to build an "independent" Church) are "incompatible with Catholic doctrine" , as the Letter of Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics clearly states. Most underground priests would be willing to be registered if the tentacles of the PA were removed. The fact remains that these new regulations appear to deal a lethal blow to the underground community, making it almost impossible for them to exercise their religious freedom without registration of places of worship and staff. What’s more their "illegal activities" could result in hefty fines up to 200 thousand yuan (Arts. 67-68).

The "criminal" actions that warrant severe punishment include " accepting domination by external forces, accepting clergy from foreign religious groups or organizations without authorization, as well as other acts contrary to the principle religious independence and self-governance" ( art. 70, 2). In practice, if out of friendship an Italian priest celebrates with a community or with a Chinese priest ( "without authorization"!) he will be committing one of the most serious crimes: ecclesial communion does not count; it must have government approval.

The criminalization against everything that harms "independence and self-government" has also spread to the internet: religious information via the internet must have the permission of government authorities and "must not contain prohibited content" (Arts. 47-48) .

In conclusion, reading all regulations, religions emerge as a suspect and dangerous item, made acceptable only if  controlled by the "people's government". Yet from the start Regulations proclaim that "religious freedom" is enjoyed by all citizens, without discrimination.

Among the discriminatory prohibitions there is in fact - in addition to the abovementioned prohibition on Party members to be religious - the fact that “It is prohibited to proselytize, hold religious activities, establish religious organizatons, or set up religious activity sites in State schools" ( art. 44). In return, the state has the right to coerce and to enforce lessons of atheism and Marxism in religious schools.

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