China’s new oversight body fuels fears about religious freedom

China’s new oversight body fuels fears about religious freedom

A cross atop a Catholic church in Tianjin, China, is seen silhouetted against the sun. (Credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters via CNS.)

Over the weekend China’s new regulations for religious personnel went into effect, obliging those who hold any formal role to, among other things, pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and to resist foreign interference.

ROME – Over the weekend, China’s new regulations for religious personnel went into effect, obliging those who hold any formal role in a religious group, among other things, to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and to resist foreign interference.

Many Catholic observers have voiced fear the new rules not only violate China’s agreement with the Vatican on bishops’ appointments, but that they make reconciliation between the so-called “underground” church and the official government-sanctioned church more difficult.

Initially published in November 2020, with a final version released in February by China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the new measures, titled, “Administrative measures for religious personnel,” went into effect May 1.

Among other things, the new rules provide for the creation of a national database containing information on religious personnel, including rewards and/or punishments they’ve received, and details on whether their ministry has been revoked.

Consisting of seven chapters containing 52 articles, the rules are applicable to all religious personnel – bishops, priests, Buddhist and Taoist monks, etc. – and require those holding any sort of religious function to be formally registered with the government.

They also outline the rights and characteristics of religious work in China, and the obligations of those with religious roles.

According to the new rules, anyone exercising a religious function in China must now adhere to these rules, which stipulate, among other things, that they must “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system, [and] respect the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules.”

Religious personnel are also required to “practice the fundamental values of socialism, adhere to the principle of independence and self-management of religion and adhere to the religious policy of China, maintaining national unity, ethnic unity, religious harmony and social stability.”

Obligations for religious personnel under the new rules include resisting or countering “illegal religious activities and religious extremism and resisting infiltration by foreign forces that use religion.”

For Catholics, this provision would ban priests formally registered with and approved by the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) from expressing any form of communion with “unofficial” or so-called “underground” bishops and clergy who have Rome’s blessing, but not that of the state.

Even Catholic bishops who are in compliance with government requirements can only exercise their ministry after registering with the state regulatory authority, meaning, in the eyes of critics, that it’s the government calling the shots and not Rome.

The initial announcement of these new rules in November came just one month after the Vatican renewed its two-year provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.

Though the terms of that agreement never have been made public, it is widely believed that it allows China to have a significant role in selecting the Catholic Church’s leaders in the country, putting forward three candidates and leaving the choice to the pope.

Many observers have voiced concern that China’s new rules for religious personnel further limit religious freedom, and thus stand in direct contradiction to the Vatican-China bishops’ agreement.

According to the missionary news agency AsiaNews, despite the renewal of the agreement – which many believe is a down payment on eventual diplomatic relations, and are meant to unite the state-approved and underground churches – the Catholic community in China, along with all religious communities, still faces consistent interference from state forces.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of AsiaNews and an expert in Chinese affairs, wrote in an editorial published late last month that even after the Vatican-China deal was renewed, state actions against unofficial bishops such as detainment, house arrests, and fines have continued.

One of the most recent incidents cited by Cervellera involved Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, in Zhejiang, who is recognized by Rome but not by the CCP.

As Christians in the area only number around 10 percent, some families have built private chapels on their property where Mass and other liturgical services can take place.

According to Cervellera, on March 16 a layman offered his chapel to Zhumin and around 20 faithful for Mass. Police found out and the man was fined 200,000 Yuan ($30,663) for taking part in “illegal religious activities, also providing him with lunch, a rest room, etc.,” despite the fact that China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, and that the man had all the proper permits for his chapel.

Since Zhumin was ordained “by a foreign institution,” meaning the Vatican, the police report also stated that the Mass “goes against the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.”

The incident sparked concern among local Catholics that even praying in small groups at home, which has become a common practice during the coronavirus pandemic, might be considered illegal.

It also stoked fears over just how freely the Catholic Church is able to act in China, despite the renewal of the agreement on bishops’ appointments.

Apart from this incident, there have also been reports a Vatican request for an office in Beijing was denied, orphanages run by Catholic nuns known for saving unwanted baby girls have been closed, and police have more strictly enforced a law barring minors under 18 from attending religious services, even with their parents.

There is still another year and a half before the Vatican-China provisional agreement expires. Whether any of this will impact a potential second renewal of that deal, or whether China loosens its grip on religious communities over the next 18 months, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the Vatican’s soft approach to China could also have implications in terms of Vatican-US relations.

When the Vatican’s agreement with China was renewed in October 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained openly about it, arguing that China’s crackdown on religious minorities, including Christians, has intensified since the deal with Beijing was inked, and that Rome risks losing moral authority if it doesn’t push back.

In an interview with Crux shortly after those comments were made, the Vatican’s own Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, admitted that the deal is not perfect and that the Vatican is not happy with how it’s been implemented, but he insisted that something is better than nothing.

RELATED: Vatican’s top diplomat defends China deal: ‘Something had to be done’

So far the Biden administration has taken a relatively hardline approach to China itself, but its position on Sino-Vatican relations isn’t clear. Some sense of direction may come later this spring when Biden is expected to reveal his choice for US Ambassador to the Holy See, who will likely face questions about the Vatican deal with China during the confirmation process.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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