11/25/2020, 16.55
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New rules treat religious activities by foreigners as espionage

by Wang Zhicheng

The new regulations require total separation between foreign and Chinese religious groups. They demand total submission to China's laws, regulations, and policies. Membership (names, visa, residence), materials (books, brochures, audio-visual), and meeting places must be closely monitored. No external religious symbols are allowed.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) released draft rules on “Foreign Religious Activities in the People's Republic of China", ostensibly to obtain feedback from the public; however, such drafts tend to remain largely unchanged.

The proposed rules are divided into 40 articles with guidelines on when and where foreigners and Chinese can meet, under what circumstances, as well as on the content of their meetings, their religious materials (books, videos, etc.), their volume, and on legal responsibilities.

Chapter 4 (Articles 30-36) is impressive because it includes “punishments” under the law and cites laws and regulations governing religious activities and public security and anti-espionage legislation.  The proposal seems informed by the view that religious activities by foreigners are part of an "espionage" operation.

Although Article 4 states: “China respects the freedom of religious belief of foreigners in the territory and protects the religious activities of foreigners in the territory according to the law”, every individual and group, and every activity must be subject to very strict conditions and must be verified by the Religious Affairs Office at the city, county, province, and national levels.

Respect "independence" and "autonomy"

For example, Article 5 says: “foreigners conducting religious activities shall abide by Chinese laws, regulations and rules, respect the principle of Chinese religion’s independence and self-management, accept the Chinese government’s management in accordance with the law, and shall not use religion to harm China’s national interests, society’s public interests, and citizens’ legitimate rights and interests, and shall not violate public order and good customs in China.”

Catholics could have problems vis-à-vis “independence" and "autonomy", which are always mean "independence" from the Pope and "autonomy" from the universal Church, and are imposed even now that an agreement is in place between China and the Holy See on episcopal appointments.

Under Article 21 (1) of the draft, a foreigner (like the Pope) may not “interfere in and dominate the affairs of Chinese religious groups”.

To enhance the sense of "independence" and "autonomy" of Chinese religions, religious activities by foreigners can only involve foreigners, even if they can, sometimes and temporarily, use local "temples or churches", and ask Chinese personnel to perform religious services or sacraments (Articles 17 and 20). Curiously, to register, a group must present all the documentation in Chinese (Article 13, 7).

Foreigners are also not allowed to set up religious groups, engage in activities, or open schools, proselytise among Chinese citizens, recruit followers, or accept donations from Chinese citizens (Article 21).

Approved only if "not hostile to China"

Each group must be registered and wait "20 days" for authorisation. Registration requires the names of the members, their number, nationality, type of visa, residence, type of religious activity, deadline, security measures (Articles 10 and 13).

Even the religious material must be authorised. No one can bring in more than 10 copies of a book, brochure, or audio-visual product.

In order to bring in material, applicants must supply documentation explaining its content, which must not "endanger China's national security" and must not be contrary to the “principle of Chinese religious independence and self-management" (Article 25).

“Religious and cultural exchanges” are possible by inviting foreigners to conferences, courses or sermons (n. 22). Foreigners must however show clear attitudes. In addition to obeying the aforementioned independence and autonomy, they must "not have words or perform deeds hostile to China" (Articles 8 and 24).

After presenting personal information, curriculum vitae, reason for the visit, organisation that requested it, applicants must wait for the permission of the State Administration of Religious Affairs.

Given such restrictions and red tape, foreign religious groups will struggle to set foot in China. interacting with underground Christians will become impossible and illegal. Interacting with members of official Christian Churches without SARA’s monitoring will become harder.

The situation is already difficult for groups like the Mormons, Quakers, Jews, and Jehovah's Witnesses who are seeking recognition.

While claiming that they want to guarantee the religious freedom of foreigners, these rules tend to reduce or do away with foreign presence. It is no accident that the (temporary) headquarters available to foreign religious groups must be devoid of external religious symbols.

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