Travel agencies in China reportedly fear being fined up to US$45,000 if they organize Vatican tours. But religious experts believe this could be the result of travel agencies and higher officials 'self-imposing' a ban in the light of new Religious Affairs Regulations coming into effect in February. The regulations will impose stricter Communist Party government controls on religious organizations and practitioners across China. Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of Hong Kong Diocese, said that uncertainty could arise from various broad provisions of the regulations
. Lam said the regulations transcend national security issues and are so harsh that agents and officials fear prosecution if they allow and help organize pilgrimages to the Vatican. Several travel agencies told ucanews.com that they had been told verbally by government tourism officials that customers from China should not go "directly" to the Vatican. Lam feared that the current problem could widen to include visits from China to monasteries and other holy places. However, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang, at a regular press conference on Nov. 23, said he was not aware of any "ban" on tours from China to the Vatican. Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, former director and founder of the Verbiest Foundation, said it appeared that not all Chinese officials were waiting for President Xi Jingping new guidelines and that this was resulting in "contradictory news and decisions”. A Chinese Catholic who travelled to Europe, Francis, said it was still possible for people in China to book tours to Italy and to make separate arrangements to visit the Vatican.