New stricter religious affairs regulations in China should prompt believers to become more aware of how to defend their rights, according to Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
. The regulations coming into force on Feb. 1 were first released in draft form in 2014 before a fuller version was made public in 2017. Critics maintained that concerns expressed about an eroding of religious freedom
were largely ignored. Among stricter provisions are those covering official registration of places used for religious purposes amid a measure of confusion about criteria to be applied. Ying told ucanews.com that much would depend on how lower and higher-level communist officials implement the details of the amended Regulations for Religious Affairs. This would apply to open, officially recognized religious groupings as well as to so-called underground or house practitioners, he added. For this reason, Ying said believers being subjected to the new regulations should become knowledgeable about legal options to challenge unfair treatment. Religious affairs administrators, not least in the form of neighborhood committees, would have enhanced roles centered on "control more than protection." The new framework, as well as setting out requirements for sanctioned religious venues, deals with allowable activities such as education as well as property rights and legal liability. Paul, an open church Catholic in northern China, told ucanews.com that some government security officials in early January asked for a church comment on the regulations. However, there had been an inadequate response because few people had studied them. "Everyone was just sleeping," Paul lamented. Another open church Catholic told ucanews.com that believers were already used to being under government surveillance and the fact that there was little choice but to follow the dictates of officials. However, an underground church Catholic expressed a willingness to continue to ignore registration requirements even if that meant imprisonment. Another area of religious practice that Ying believes authorities want to more tightly control is that of so-called "grey church" communities that are tacitly sanctioned by the government but have not registered. He thought the aim of turning them into "red" pro-government registered church bodies would not be easy to achieve
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The professor explained that the government in the past had tolerated some house or underground churches. As long as they had not been specifically targeted by authorities, there was a lot of room for them to manoeuvre in governing their own affairs. They might not be willing to register and thereby be subjected to closer monitoring, Ying said. Once churches entered "the system," there could be no turning back, Ying said, noting that mainland China communist officials had promised "One Country, Two Systems"
for Hong Kong only to tighten their political grip on the former British colony. Ying reiterated the importance for practitioners of religion in China to use legal avenues to defend their rights in the face of new regulations.