ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: September 21, 2017 03:36 AM GMT
Under new religious regulations children in China may no longer be allowed to attend Mass. (Photo supplied)
Church officials fear that newly revised religious affairs regulations released by the Chinese Government, avowedly aimed at protecting national security, will be used to further suppress religious activities.
Premier Li Keqiang earlier this month announced that a State Council order on the new regulations would come into effect on Feb. 1 next year.
Anthony Lam, executive secretary of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, told ucanews.com that new provisions showed authorities had not listened to opinions expressed by religious communities during public consultations.
Total religious control was the goal, he said, whereas a 2005 version had been more balanced and moderate.
The changes reflected differing governing styles of former president Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping, he added.
Lam cited tighter restrictions in the revised regulations on "unauthorized religious" venues. He questioned whether a home display about Zen meditation exercises could, for example, be deemed illegal.
He stressed that both open and underground communities of the Catholic Church in China would be affected.
Because of loopholes in the regulations, the open communities could be subjected to cash extortion demands over what authorities considered to be "unauthorized" religious venues, he added.
A draft of the regulations was released in 2014, but a finalized version was only recently made public.
Comprising nearly 10,000 words, the regulations include chapters on general provisions as well as religious groups, venues, personnel, property and legal responsibilities.
Detailed provisions on what constitutes religious institutes and religious activities are also covered.
The total number of articles has been increased from 48 to 77.
Professor Ying Fuk-Tsang, director of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told ucanews.com that an emphasis on "the rule of law" was aimed at strengthening control over religious affairs.
This was done with a stated official intent of protecting religious freedoms of citizens, something Ying describes as impossible.
The underlying theme was that religious entities not only had to comply with the constitution, laws, regulations and other provisions, but also practice "core values of socialism."
Ying said on some matters it remained unclear just what was required of religious groups, institutes and believers.
He fears the stricter rules seek to undermine the essence of faith.
Further, Ying expressed concerns that greater regulation would be imposed on religious education, even inhibiting parents from allowing their children to attend Sunday schools.
Father Joseph, an underground priest of Wenzhou Diocese, in Zhejiang province, told ucanews.com that he is concerned about organizing future large scale religious activities as there would be very specific penalties if they were held to be unauthorized.
The new regulations stipulate that if a religious group held an activity without permission, authorities could impose a fine of between 100,000 yuan (US$15,254) and 300,000 yuan. Revenue from gatherings and property could also be confiscated. In addition, religious authorities could demand that church officials, or those in control of venues, be removed from their positions.
Zhejiang is one of the provinces in China with a large Christian population; about two million Protestants and 210,000 Catholics.
Wenzhou, a city known as "China's Jerusalem," has about 150,000 Catholics who are kept under surveillance by authorities.
Meanwhile, Father Joseph noted that church applications for legal statues must go through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government sponsored group that seeks to exercise authority over church affairs.
Father John, in northwestern China, told ucanews.com that the new and old regulations were not essentially different, but that a controlling "rope" had been tightened.
He added that the tougher approach was "not good news" for the underground church, which refuses to join the association.
A new element was "Sinicization and resistance to infiltration."
Father John noted that the Article 5 of the regulations stated that all religions must adhere to the principles of national independence and self-governance, with religious groups, schools and venues not to be "controlled" by foreign forces.
"This article is still an insurmountable obstacle for the unity of the China Church," he said.
"I don't know whether the Vatican can see this clearly."
At least, the new regulations made clear that the religious policies of China had not essentially changed, nor was there a desire for change.