China introduces new rules for foreigners to “ban religious extremism”

These beliefs — Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism — are overseen by official organizations such as the Protestant three independent patriotic movements or the Chinese Buddhist Association, which in turn are overseen by the ruling United Communist Party’s vast United Front. Department of Labor. Practices outside the boundaries of these groups are strictly controlled, and underground churches, sects, and even private religious studies groups are regularly disbanded.
Foreigners tend to have more freedom, provided they avoid anything that suggests conversion. Many beliefs not officially recognized by the government – Mormonism, Judaism, Quakers – are able to operate in China, provided the worshipers are only foreign nationals.
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However, sensitivity to foreign religious groups remains strong. In the 2018 White Paper on Religion, the Chinese government noted that certain beliefs “have long been controlled and exploited by colonizers and imperialists.”

While the draft rule reaffirms China’s commitment to respecting “foreigners’ freedom of religious belief, ”listing potential new restrictions and requirements could make it much more difficult to exercise that belief.

In particular, the draft rule includes a list of activities that foreigners should not engage in in China, such as “interfering with or dominating the affairs of Chinese religious groups,” promoting “extremist religious ideas,” “using religion to carry out terrorist activities,” or “. in the appointment or leadership of members of the Chinese clergy. ”

The last point targets the Vatican, with whom China has long debated the appointment of bishops by the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Beijing insists that China be the final word in all episcopal appointments to mainland China, while the Holy See maintains that only the Pope has such authority.
The two sides reached a secret and highly controversial agreement in 2018, which was extended for another two years in October, but negotiations on a more permanent agreement appear to be stalled. In his book published this week, Pope Francis first called the Uyghurs a “persecuted people,” a term that angered Beijing.

“What Pope Francis said about the Uyghurs is completely unfounded,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular briefing on Tuesday. “There are 56 ethnic groups in China, and the Uighur ethnic group is an equal member of the great family of the Chinese nation.”

“The Chinese government has always treated minority groups equally and defended their legitimate rights and interests,” Zhao added.

This photo, taken on June 4, 2019, at the end of Ramadan, shows people walking away on a screen showing images of Chinese President Xi Qing-ping in Kashgar, China’s western Xinjiang region.
Other parts of the draft rule appear to target Islamic groups that have come under tremendous pressure in recent years, both in Xinjiang and China, where an estimated 23 million Muslims live, according to the latest census.
An article in the state-sponsored Global Times that explicitly linked new Islamic extremism in Europe quoted a former religious official as saying the proposed regulation shows that “China is responding quickly to a growing global challenge – religious extremism to political stability and social panic and disorder caused by religious extremism “.

Rian Thum, a Chinese Islamic expert at the University of Nottingham, said the rules reflect “a persistent fear of foreign pollution that has become increasingly important in the current climate.”

“I was shocked by the repeated use of the term‘ Chinese religious independence ’, which points to a nationalist desire to cleanse religions of‘ foreign ’influences,” he said. “The regulation appears to be an effort that seeks to shut down Chinese religious practitioners from their fellow believers outside the country. Even performances by visiting religious personalities would require a bureaucratic licensing process that would discourage most visitors.”

Following Xi’s efforts to “sinicize” the country’s religions, places of worship were openly deprived of religious symbols and iconography, Muslim cemeteries and mosques were destroyed, and Xi’s image was hung in religious buildings. According to a recent analysis by the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy (ASPI), about one in three mosques in Xinjiang has been demolished, especially since 2017.
A Xinjiang government spokesman said last week that reports of the destruction of mosques and other religious sites were “completely untrue.”

Despite all the government’s speeches about criminalizing Islam, the majority of Chinese Muslims practice the domestic version of the faith, said Alkan Akad, a Chinese researcher at Amnesty International in mosques that are often more Chinese-style than Islam. Muslims associated with overseas groups are often subject to increased scrutiny and some Uyghurs have been transferred to retraining camps after returning from the Hajj or traveling to Muslim countries.

The reversal of sinicization is the shift toward “de-arabization” or “de-arming”. buzzwords used by Chinese officials for fears of growing foreign influence over Islam in China.

“The Chinese state is quite concerned about the growing popularity of Wahhabi ideology and the close ties with Saudi Arabia that have apparently grown over the past decade,” Akad said.

On October 22, 2020, two men are watching St. Joseph’s Temple in Beijing, also known as Wangfujing Catholic Temple.

Darren Byler, an expert in Xinjiang and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado, said that “Islam itself is more or less a crime in Xinjiang, so I assume (the new rules) are more likely to target the East-East Hui practice. China. stand with Saudi and global reverence movements such as the Tabligh Jama’at. ”

The Hui minority, most of whom are Chinese-speaking Muslims, has come under increasing pressure in recent months as the government turns its attention to the largest group of Muslims outside Xinjiang.

However, experts who told CNN agreed that the main impact of the new rules was likely to affect Christian groups who, while never given free rein, had previously avoided the type of intensive control of Muslims.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume you’re targeting Christians in particular, who have been seen as a means of foreign infiltration, especially since the Opium War,” Akad said.

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Previously, there was widespread tolerance for foreigners preaching to foreigners, provided they had official permission and ensured that Chinese citizens did not attend worship services. Some Christian groups are less strict about this than others, and missionaries continue to operate illegally in China, Thum said.

The new regulation could further tighten the gray areas around foreign religious practice, impose strict new requirements for applying to worship, including a description of the primary religious texts used, a list of citizenship and visa status for all participants, and obtaining permission to use the building. such activities.

Upon receipt of such a request, the draft regulations state: “the religious department of the provincial people’s government shall request the religious department of the county people’s government, the district’s religious department of the city’s people’s government and the province, the autonomous region” and “within 20 days” .

Such bureaucracy and the possible penalties for avoiding it can make it much more difficult for foreigners to hold worship services and force them to use approved Bibles or Qur’ans instead of texts published abroad.

While the new proposal does not list specific penalties, there is a proposal that can be strict, not to mention that “anti-spy” laws and other state security rules are applied to offenders.

“The way the rules are written and the way Chinese law is generally interpreted by security services suggests that foreigners who engage in religious activities with, or even carry out research after, Chinese citizens may be detained or harassed,” he said. Thum.

CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed to the reports.