Freedom of religion in China
Freedom of religion in China is provided for by the country's constitution, with an important caveat. Namely, the government protects what it calls "normal religious activity," defined in practice as activities that take place within government-sanctioned religious organizations and registered places of worship. Human rights bodies have criticized this differentiation as falling short of international standards for the protection of religious freedom.
China's five officially sanctioned religious organizations are the Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. These groups are afforded a degree protection, but are subject to restrictions and controls under the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Unregistered religious groups—including house churches, Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, underground Catholics, and Uyghur Muslims—face varying degrees of harassment, including imprisonment, torture, and forced religious conversion.
The constitution of China states “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religion. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion." This protection is extended only to what is called "normal religious activity," generally understood to refer to religions that submit to state control via the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The Constitution further forbids the use of religion to "engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious organizations and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign dominance.”
The law affords protection to five officially sanctioned religions: the Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Religious groups are required to register with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA, formerly known as the central Religious Affairs Bureau) or its provincial and local offices (still known as Religious Affairs Bureaus (RABs)). SARA and the RABs are responsible for monitoring and judging the legitimacy of religious activity.
Proselytizing is only permitted in private settings or within registered houses of worship. Proselytization in public, in unregistered churches or temples, or by foreigners is prohibited. Members of the officially atheist Communist Party are strongly discouraged from holding religious faith.
A significant number of non-sanctioned churches and temples exist, attended by locals and foreigners alike. Unregistered or underground churches are not officially banned, but are not permitted to openly conduct religious services. These bodies may face varying degrees of interference, harassment, and persecution by state and party organs. In some instances, unregistered religious believers and leaders have been charged with "illegal religious activities" or "disrupting social stability." Religious believers have also been charged under article 300 of the criminal code, which forbids using heretical organizations to "undermine the implementation of the law." An extrajudicial, Communist Party-led security organ called the 6-10 Office oversees the suppression of Falun Gong and, increasingly, other unregistered religious organizations.
Folk religions, though not officially protected, are sometimes tolerated by authorities. The State Administration for Religious Affairs has created a department to oversee the management of folk religion.
Christianity has had a presence in China dating as far back as the Tang dynasty, and accumulated a following in China with the arrival of large numbers of missionaries during the Qing dynasty. Missionaries were expelled from China in 1949 when the Communist Party came to power, and the religion was associated with Western imperialism. However, Christianity experienced a resurgence of popularity since the reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and 1980s. By 2011, approximately 60 million Chinese citizens were estimated to be practicing Protestantism or Catholicism. The majority of these do not belong to the state-sanctioned churches.
Religious practices are still often tightly controlled by government authorities. Chinese over age 18 in Mainland China are permitted to be involved with officially sanctioned Christian meetings through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Associations.
China is home to an estimated 12 million Catholics, the majority of whom worship outside the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The State Administration for Religious Affairs states that there are 5.3 million Catholics belonging to the official Catholic Patriotic Association, which oversees 70 bishops, and approximately 6,000 churches nationwide. In addition, there are roughly 40 bishops unordained by the CPA who operate unofficially, and recognize the authority of the Vatican.
The state-sanctioned church appoints its own bishops, and as with all official religious, exercises control over the doctrine and leadership of the religion. As a matter of maintaining autonomy and rejecting foreign intervention, the official church has no official contact with the Vatican, and does not recognize its authority. However, the CPA has allowed for unofficial Vatican approval of ordinations. Although the CPA continues to carry out ordinations opposed by the Holy See, the majority of CPA bishops are now recognized by both authorities. In addition to overseeing the practice of the Catholic faith, the CPA espouses politically oriented objectives as well. Liu Bainian, chairman of the CPA and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, stated in a 2011 interview that the church needed individuals who "love the country and love religion: politically, they should respect the Constitution, respect the law, and fervently love the socialist motherland.’’
Some Catholics who recognize the authority of the Holy See choose to worship clandestinely due to the risk of harassment from authorities. Several underground Catholic bishops have been reported disappeared or imprisoned, and harassment of unregistered bishops and priests is common. There are reports of Catholic bishops and priests being forced by authorities to attend the ordination ceremonies for bishops who had not gained Vatican approval. Chinese authorities also have reportedly pressured Catholics to break communion with the Vatican by requiring them to renounce an essential belief in Roman Catholicism, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. In other instances, however, authorities have permitted Vatican-loyal churches to carry out operations.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China; the Three-Self Church) or "TSPM" is the government-sanctioned ("patriotic") Christian organization in China. Known in combination with the China Christian Council as the lianghui, they form the only state-sanctioned ("registered") Protestant church in mainland China. All other Protestant denominations are illegal.
Chinese house churches are a religious movement of unregistered assemblies of Christians in China, which operate independently of the government-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC) for Protestant groups and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CCPA) and the Chinese Catholic Bishops Council (CCBC) for Catholics. They are also known as the "Underground" Church or the "Unofficial" Church, although this is somewhat of a misnomer as they are collections of unrelated individual churches rather than a single unified church. They are called "house churches" because as they are not officially registered organizations, they cannot independently own property and hence they meet in private houses, often in secret for fear of arrest or imprisonment.
China took full control of Tibet in 1959. In the wake of the takeover and especially during the cultural revolution many monasteries were destroyed and many monks and laypeople killed. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India and has since ceded temporal power to an elected government-in-exile. The current Dalai Lama has attempted to negotiate with the Chinese authorities for greater autonomy and religious freedom for Tibet. As various high-ranking Lamas in the country have died, the authorities have proposed their own candidates on the religious authorities, which has led at times to rival claimants to the same position. In an effort to control this, the Chinese government passed a law in 2007 requiring a Reincarnation Application be completed and approved for all lamas wishing to reincarnate.
The present incarnation of the Panchen Lama is disputed. The Dalai Lama recognises Gedhun Choekyi Nyima; however, the Chinese government recognises Gyaincain Norbu as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama. Exile Tibetan sources allege that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was kidnapped by the Chinese government. The identity of the Panchen Lama is of critical importance to Tibetan Buddhism because he is one of the authorities that must approve the next Dalai Lama.
Taoist practitioners are required to register with the state-controlled Chinese Taoist Association (CTA), which exercises control over religious doctrine and personnel. Local governments restrict the construction of Taoist temples and statues, and call for abandonment of practices they deem to be "superstitious" or "feudal." The CTA dictates the proper interpretation of Taoist doctrine, and exhorts Taoist practitioners to support the Communist Party and the state. For example, a Taoist scripture reading class held by the CTA in November 2010 required participants to ‘‘fervently love the socialist motherland [and] uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.’’
The State Administration for Religious Affairs places the number of Muslims in China at approximately 21 million, while independent estimates suggest the number could be upwards of 50 million. According to a 2000 census, 96 percent of 20.3 million reported Muslims belong to three ethnic groups: Hui, Uyghur, and Kazakh. Most Hui Muslims live in Ningxia, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces, while Uyghur Muslims are found predominantly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The state-run Islamic Association of China (IAC) oversees the practice of Islam, though many Muslims worship outside the state system. The IAC regulates the content of sermons and interpretation of religious scripture, exercises control over the confirmation of religious leaders, and monitors overseas pilgrimages. In 2001, the IAC established a committee to ensure that scriptures were interpreted in a manner to serve the interests of the Chinese government and Communist Party. Authorities in Xinjiang impose rigid controls over religious expression, particularly Islam. Human rights reports indicate that crackdowns on religion are frequently integrated into security campaigns. Authorities monitor mosques, restrict the observation of Ramadan, and enact campaigns to prevent Muslim men from wearing beards. Muslims worshiping independently have been detained and charged with conducting "illegal religious activities."
Falun Gong has been the focus of international attention since July 20, 1999, when the government of China began a nationwide crackdown, except in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. The Chinese government banned the group for allegedly engaging in "illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability." Several governments, international human rights organizations and scholars consider the ban a human rights violation. Particular concerns have been raised over reports of torture, beatings, executions, illegal imprisonment, forced labour, psychiatric abuses, and live organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China. Amnesty stated that "the crackdown is politically motivated, with legislation being used retroactively to convict people on politically-driven charges, and new regulations introduced to further restrict fundamental freedoms."
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