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Handbook on religion outdated but a step forward

HONG KONG (SE): “Sadly, the handbook provides for the personnel of local Religious Affairs Work departments outdated policy instructions, based on flawed information,” writes Roderick O’Brien, a scholar of Chinese law, about the 2010 revised edition of the Religious Affairs Regulations: A Handbook of Related Laws, Rules, and Policies, edited by the State Administration of Religious Affairs Policy and Regulation Office in Beijing and printed by the Religious Culture Press.

Writing in Tripod (Autumn 2011), the quarterly publication of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, O’Brien describes the handbook as replacing a 2005 edition, which came out after the Religious Affairs Regulations of 2004 were enacted by the State Council.

Nevertheless, he notes that the handbook, which is intended for those at the front line who administer laws regulating the practice of religion, provides outdated policy instructions. While those at the top of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) may have more up to date information, O’Brien notes that the failure lies with SARA, which has failed to place a draft law before the National People’s Congress to enact a Law on Religions.

“All regulations must conform to the law, although there is no provision for courts to strike down a regulation which conflicts with a national law. A decade has passed, and SARA has yet to put before the National People’s Congress a draft law for enactment,” O’Brien explains.

However, the handbook has a wider mandate, covering laws for civil servants of 2005, customs regulations on the importation of religious publications of 2007, tax regulations of 2008 and revisions of protection of national cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, he points out that while the existence of a handbook does not say anything about what may actually be happening on the ground, it does point to how things are meant to be. “Laws and regulations should not be sleeping beauties: perfect in appearance, but without any effect,” O’Brien notes.

He also points to the production of the book as being a sign of hope, noting that it is not so long since the Red Guards were rampaging around the country destroying every religious site and person in sight.

“Now there is a rebuilding of religious life in China and there is a rebuilding of the legal system,” he writes. “While much remains to be done, the appearance of something as mundane as a handbook of regulations indicates that both religious life and the legal system are in a new era. We can all be grateful for these achievements.”

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