CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 16 February 2019

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China tightens screws on religion

BEIJING (UCAN) : The United Front Work Department, which manages relations with all religions in China, has a new charter which will place fresh hurdles in the face of religious freedom.

In seeking to entrench its control of all religious activity, the Communist Party has issued new rules to be followed by faith groups and other sectors of society.

In a move that fits with growing anti-western rhetoric, the United Front has been charged with preventing all overseas active involvement in religious affairs on Chinese soil.

Party members are now being officially banned from following any faith in order to keep religion separate from the state.

As the overseer of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the United Front wields strong influence over religious groups. It is the management office of the country’s five recognised religions—Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism.

“The new rule says it is essential for the Chinese Communist Party to unite all forces in society as China transforms itself, with reforms in almost every area,” the state news agency, Xinhua, reported on September 23.

However, Ying Fuk-tsang, the director of the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, disagrees. He said that far from uniting China, the new regulations will only serve to entrench divisions.

“Insistence on Church-state separation has rarely been mentioned for years and now it reappears in this regulation,” he pointed out. “Religion cannot interfere with politics, while the government can interfere with religion.” 

The new guidelines have been issued amid a surge of interest in religion.

Authorities in Zhejiang have removed more than 1,200 crosses since the end of 2013 and demolished dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches.

Ying said that the high incidence of injuries in these incidents shows that the United Front is failing to build bridges with Christians.

In Xinjiang, China’s largest geographical region, the Muslim Uyghur population has complained that authorities have outlawed cultural and religious symbols, including burqas and even large beards, but Beijing maintains it is only targeting a minority of Muslim separatists.

Yang Fenggang, the director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the United States of America, says that the new rules indicate Beijing has failed to learn from key contradictions eroding religious freedom in China.

In two consecutive articles, the regulations say the United Front should “respect and protect a citizen’s right to believe in religion and not believe in religion.” But the next article states party members should not believe in religion. This poses a conundrum.

“Aren’t Chinese Communist Party members Chinese citizens?” Yang asked. “If they are, shouldn’t they have a citizen’s right to believe or not believe in religion? Are party members under state law or above state law?”

A survey conducted by Purdue University in 2007 found almost 85 per cent of party members followed some religious or magical belief or practice. Yang said that it remains to be seen how the Communist Party will tackle this and how these new rules for the United Front will work in practice.

“The devil is in the detail,” he said, adding that officials can take it to the left or the right.


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