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Survey shows Church-state relations smell rosy but hint not all is well

HONG KONG (SE): The Renmin University in Beijing released the results of what it describes as a multi-year survey on the religious environment in China today in July this year.

ChinaSource reported on August 25 that while the survey results received wide publicity both inside and outside China, the bulk of them highlighted the growing popularity of religion, especially among young people, as well as the growth in Islam.

The Christian Times quoted a professor from the university, Wei Dedong, as saying in the introduction, “The survey reveals that, after 30 years of effort, China has realised a basic level of the adaptation of religion to socialist society… Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity, as well as other faiths, have become a positive force for the modernisation of China.”

The university also claims that this is the first social survey carried out in China using methods that strictly comply with international standards and probability sampling principles.

Between mid-2013 and June this year, 4,383 places of worship in 31 provinces, municipalities or autonomous regions were surveyed, interviewing both the heads of individual places of worship and local religious affairs officials.

In addition, individuals, organisations and representatives of governing bodies were included in the sampling.

The survey was conducted jointly by the Department of Philosophy and the National Survey Research Centre at the university. They found that among the recognised religions in the mainland that Buddhism is the most influential religion and Christianity demonstrates the greatest ability to adapt to the contemporary social environment.

Buddhism also has the highest level of Internet outreach, as well as the highest level of philanthropic activity.

The results of the survey point to the rapid growth of Christianity, saying, “Of the five major religions, Christianity seems best suited to adapt to the contemporary Chinese social environment, which may be the fundamental reason for its considerable development over the past 30 years.”

The survey also reveals that more than half of the Christian churches in China today were built after 1977, which is seen as the single greatest indicator of its rapid growth.

In addition, it notes that 82 per cent of Protestant buildings display Chinese architectural traits, whereas only 51 per cent of Catholic churches and 40 per cent of Islamic mosques incorporate any Chinese flavour in their design.

The survey looked at the rapid expansion of Christianity, noting especially the radical change in its demographic makeup, pointing out that it is no longer just a religion for aged people.

It revealed that over half of Christians are under 60 and that ministers of religion are hardworking with an income much lower than the national average, taking home only around 560 yuan ($689) a month, putting paid to the rich monk image.

The education levels of believers were found to be lower than the average for society in general, with 43 per cent with only a grade school education or lower, and just five per cent holding a university degree or higher.

Among religious leaders, just 11 per cent have a degree from a university, although 15 per cent have finished college. 

However, it notes that among the religious leaders, the Catholic Church shows the highest level, which is attributed to the lasting influence of the Jesuits, whom it describes as highly skilled in science and technology.

In religious education, 43 per cent of Catholics hold a university degree or higher, which is well above the 18 per cent national average for all religions.

A major area of concentration in the survey is the degree of harmony between religion and state, and the survey concludes that religions have been successfully guided in adapting to a socialist society, saying that the relationship has developed its own unique characteristics.

The Christian Times says, “The survey found that China’s religious groups are willing to accept the guidance of the state and maintain harmonious relations with the government and society.”

Institutions also seemed to be happy with the money received from the government for allowances and charities, and bringing religion under the banner of national education received positive acknowledgment.

State organs that manage religious affairs also came out smelling of roses. The Christian Times says that according to the survey results, “All levels of religious offices, the United Front Department and other government offices, have taken the initiative to visit religious venues and promote the constitutional rights of citizens to implement the freedom of religious belief. They have also worked to help these venues solve practical problems.”

The survey results say that because 90 per cent of religious venues have established a democratic management committee as their core system of administration and more than 30 per cent of the clergy take part in the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the China Youth Federation to provide a voice for religious people in the working out of political rights and affairs, a high degree of adaptation on the part of religious bodies has been achieved.

It says that among the religious leaders surveyed, 60 per cent believe that the nation’s religious policies have an appropriate degree of control and freedom.

However, while the overall flavour of the survey results seems to be at odds with current reports coming out of China about increased surveillance of religious activities and increasing interference on the part of authorities in the running of religious affairs, the survey does hint that not all may be well in the stable.

The top three items on the wish list of religious communities include a desire for an increase in the number of places of worship and in clergy in order to meet the demands of their people.

Problems in registering places of worship is the second biggest worry revealed and receiving approval for appointment of clergy is third.

Although disagreements over issues concerning the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church are ongoing and the removal of crosses from Church buildings remain festering sores in state-religion relationships, the survey seems to have come to the desired conclusion by seeing the five major faiths as becoming sufficiently domesticated to be a positive force in the realisation of China’s modernisation programme.

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