BEIJING — The finances of religiousgroups will come under greater scrutiny. Theology students who go overseascould be monitored more closely. And people who rent or provide space toillegal churches may face heavy fines.
These are among the measures expected tobe adopted when the Chinese government enacts regulations tightening itsoversight of religion in the coming days, the latest move by President XiJinping to strengthen the Communist Party’s control over society and combatforeign influences it considers subversive.
The rules, the first changes in morethan a decade to regulations on religion, also include restrictions onreligious schools and limits on access to foreign religious writings, includingon the internet. They were expected to be adopted as early as Friday, at theend of a public comment period, though there was no immediate announcement bythe government.
Religion has blossomed in China despitethe Communist Party’s efforts to control and sometimes suppress it, withhundreds of millions embracing the nation’s major faiths — Buddhism,Christianity, Islam and Taoism — over the past few decades. But many Chineseworship outside the government’s official churches, mosques and temples, inunauthorized congregations that the party worries could challenge itsauthority.
A draft of the new regulations waspublished in September, several months after Mr. Xi convened a rare leadershipconference on religious policy and urged the party to be on guard againstforeign efforts to infiltrate China using religion.
“It could mean that if you are not partof the government church, then you won’t exist anymore,” said Xiao Yunyang, oneof 24 prominent pastors and lawyers who signed a public statement last monthcriticizing the regulations as vague and potentially harmful.
The regulations follow the enactment ofa law on nongovernmental organizations that increased financial scrutiny ofcivil society groups and restricted their contact with foreign organizations ina similar way, as well as an aggressive campaign to limit the visibility ofchurches by tearing down crosses in one eastern province where Christianity hasa wide following.
But the rules on religion also pledge toprotect holy sites from commercialization, allow spiritual groups to engage incharitable work and make government oversight more transparent. That suggestsMr. Xi wants closer government supervision of religious life in China but iswilling to accept its existence.
“There’s been a recognition thatreligion can be of use, even in a socialist society,” said Thomas Dubois, aprofessor at the Australian National University in Canberra. “There is anattempt, yes, to carve out the boundaries, but to leave a particular protectedspace for religion.”
Although the governing Communist Partyrequires its 85 million members to be atheist, its leaders have lauded someaspects of religious life for instilling morality in the broader population andhave issued directives ratcheting back the hard-line attacks on religion thatcharacterized the Mao era.
Over the past decades this has permitteda striking religious renaissance in China, including a construction boom intemples, mosques and churches. Christianity is widely considered thefastest-growing faith; there are as many as 67 million adherents now, at leasthalf of whom worship in unregistered churches that have proliferated acrossChina, sometimes called underground or house churches.
The new regulations are more explicitabout the party’s longstanding requirement that all religious groups registerwith the government, and the most vocal opposition so far has come fromProtestant leaders unwilling to do so.
“These regulations effectively pushhouse churches into taking on an illegal character,” said Yang Xingquan, alawyer who is one of the signatories of the public statement. “This is veryclear.”
Many Christians contend thatgovernment-approved churches are tools of the state, as sermons are vetted toavoid contentious political and social issues and clergy are appointed by theparty rather than congregants or, in the case of the Catholic Church, the Vatican.
The new rules call for more stringentaccounting practices at religious institutions, threaten “those who provide theconditions for illegal religious activities” with fines and confiscation ofproperty, and require the many privately run seminaries in China to submit tostate control.
Other articles in the regulationsrestrict contact with religious institutions overseas, which could affectChinese Catholics studying theology in the Philippines, Protestants attendingseminaries in the United States, or Muslims learning at madrasas in Malaysia orPakistan.
Overseas churches and activists withties to Chinese Christians have been scathing in their attacks on the newregulations. In its annual report on religious persecution released onWednesday, China Aid, a group based in Texas, said they violated theConstitution, which guarantees freedom of religious belief.
The regulations also say for the firsttime that religion must not harm national security, which could give securityservices in China greater authority to target spiritual groups with tiesoverseas.
Chinese officials have already bannedresidents from attending somereligious conferences in Hong Kong and increasedoversight of mainland programs run by Hong Kong pastors, raising fears withinthe city’s vibrant Christian community.
For traditional Chinese religions suchas Buddhism and Taoism — which are practiced by 300 million to 400 millionpeople and which the party views more favorably — the regulations appearintended to address a different problem: crass commercialization.
Temples are often forced by localgovernments to charge entrance fees, which mostly go to the state and not theplace of worship. About 600 people were recently detained at Mount Wutai, aBuddhist pilgrimage site in a northeastern city, for posing as monks to hustlemoney by fortunetelling, begging for alms and performing street shows, thestate news media reported.
The new regulations say spiritual sitesshould be “safeguarded” from tourism and development. The rules also requirelocal governments to decide on applications to build houses of worship within30 days and to explain denials in writing.
Scholars caution that it is unclear howstrictly the regulations will be enforced, noting that local officials haveoften tolerated and sometimes encouraged religious activity that is formallyillegal, including house churches.
“Past regulations have not harmed thegrowth of religion in China,” said James Tong, a political-science professor atthe University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively aboutreligious regulation in China, “and I don’t think these will, either.”
Follow Ian Johnson on Twitter@iandenisjohnson.
Emily Feng contributed research.
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