12/15/2006, 00.00
CHINA
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State unable to control people’s faith

Communist Party’s attempt to control all religious activities with officially-sanctioned religious organisations is driving more and more believers underground. Religious groups are gaining in autonomy.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Forum18) – The right the Chinese Communist Party claims over the organisation over religious life, a right that it is trying to enforce more forcefully, is pushing more and more people to form independent religious groups, outside of state-sponsored organisations, some even willing to go underground just to be free. This is especially true for “unofficial” Protestants—up to 80 millions according to some sources—who are ten times the number of “official” Protestants.

Under the laws of the People’s Republic of China any private or public activity by any religious group must be registered with the state’s Religious Affairs Bureau. Whoever fails to do so engages in “illegal” activities and can be sanctioned severely, which can include jail time.

Officially, the Chinese government recognises only five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity. These five official religions are represented by seven national state-controlled organisations: the Chinese Buddhist Association, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the Chinese Bishops Conference, the Chinese Daoist Association, the Chinese Islam Association, and the two associations of Protestant Christianity—the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the Chinese Christian Council (CCC).

According to a study by the Forum 18 agency into ongoing changes in China’s religious life all seven organisations demand all groups affiliate with them to be recognised. For instance, the CPCA demands believers rely on it and not on the Pope.

Initially, this was meant to prevent ties with foreign religious organisation, but now the incentives for those who run the seven recognised groups are material, namely public funds and social status.

Increasingly, many believers shy away from the established groups in order to maintain their autonomy in matters of faith. And some Christian groups are even able to register as autonomous entities. This is the case of Orthodox Christians, especially in the north, and many Adventist and Pentecostal groups.

In other places though, local authorities demand official organisations approve any application for registration. This is especially true for new Protestant groups.

The net result is a proliferation of underground religious groups who prefer to practice their faith, pray and talk about religion behind close doors in private homes.

Despite its best efforts, Beijing has so far failed to eradicate home churches. For Forum 18, government action is forcing believers to become “outlaws”. And this has become an important cause of unrest and social disorder and has made China the target of international criticism for violating this most basic right to profess one’s faith.

Still, this is not true everywhere. In some places smaller religious groups are valued by official organisations. In Jiangsu for instance many Adventists are leaders in the local TSPM.

By the same token, Forum 18 notes, official organisations are themselves divided, a fact which undermines the government’s goal of controlling all religious life. For example, the great majority of Han Chinese Buddhists are clearly distinct from their Tibetan Buddhist counterparts. Most prominently, Han Chinese Buddhists owe no spiritual or temporal allegiance to the Dalai Lama.

Similarly, in provinces like Gansu, which also contains Hui Muslim autonomous areas, one can find several Islamic mosques in a single village, each one representing different strands of Islam.

This confusion helps those who want to maintain political power but not religious life and even less society.

Bishop Ding Guangxun, a senior TSPM/CCC leader, has spoken on numerous occasions about the need for different denominations to respect each other. Ding himself was ordained in mainland China as an Anglican priest in 1942 and as a bishop in 1955, but now this is not legally possible for anyone else under the system of control to which Ding himself belongs. The Anglican Church cannot presently exist under the law in China outside Hong Kong. (PB)

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