12/20/2004, 00.00
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New regulations for controlling religions

by Bernardo Cervellera
New government guidelines claim to "guarantee religious freedom". But, apart from the odd new element, they reconfirm minute control over people, places and activities.

Rome (AsiaNews) – With a highly detailed list of 48 rules and norms, the government of China has published new regulations on religious personnel, place and activities that will come into effect on March 1, 2005.  The new guidelines, which appeared in Xinhua last  December 18, replace the 1994 regulations for the administration of religious places.

The first chapter affirms the state's commitment to "guaranteeing religious freedom and harmony between religions and in society".  The text states that in China no one is to be discriminated for his faith or lack thereof.  Though it 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 (n.b.: the Vatican, or rather the Holy See is considered a foreign country).

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

It is especially worth noting, in this regard, the biggest "novelty" of these regulations: they 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.  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." (art. 38).

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 (xian), then from the next level of government (shi), then from the provincial government (shen).  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 (cf art. 13 – 19).


As for the rest, communities face the same restrictions as in the past: they 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.  State atheism can instead, as emerges from the new regulations of the Propaganda Office, use all the means of communication, schools, libraries, to "destroy religious superstitions".  Despite guaranteeing "respect" for believers and non-believers alike, believers effectively suffer discrimination.

The biggest discrimination is that believers can exercise their religious freedom only if officially registered.  For Beijing, religious freedom is not an inalienable right, but is conceded by the state.  Several weeks ago at a conference on religious freedom, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, said "religious freedom is prior to any express recognition on the part of state authorities … the registration of religious communities cannot be considered as a prerequisite for enjoying such freedom".

The last part of the new regulations, from article 40 on, deals in fact with all the penalties foreseen for those who carry out religious activity without permission: expropriation of goods, fines, penal sanctions, demolition of places of worship, disbarment from religious office.  It is interesting to note that, in this case, the members of non-official or underground communities are considered "non religious persons" or "impostors", who use religion for their own purpose or "illicit gain".

The new regulations contain articles that refer specifically to Muslims and Catholics.  Article 11 states that, in order to go on pilgrimages abroad, Muslims must go through "the national organization for the Muslim faithful", in order to avoid all contact with fundamentalist groups.  Instead, article 27 reserves special treatment for Catholic bishops: despite being responsible for a diocese – thus a provincial-level entity – Catholic bishops need to be registered with the National Religious Affairs Office. 

(Quotations of the new regulations are based on translations by AsiaNews)

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