BEIJING – Many Chinese Catholics defied the government on Wednesday by attending mass at so-called underground churches on the eve of a new version of the Religious Affairs Regulations coming into effect.
Beijing, which has come under heavy criticism for its treatment of religious communities in Tibet and the restive region of Urumqi, will further tighten legislation governing religious activities, which establish new legal responsibilities and fines.
Religious repression is nothing new in the country; China recently demolished several churches, alleging that they were illegal, has confiscated crosses, and forced to replace portraits of Jesus Christ with pictures of President Xi Jinping.
It has also banned veils and beards in the homeland of the Muslim minority Uighurs, and prohibited children from attending religious activities during vacations.
Although freedom of religion is officially protected in China, the reality is rather different, according to Brynne Lawrence of China Aid, an organization that coordinates a wide network of activists and underground Chinese Christians.
Lawrence told EFE that China did not have religious freedom, but rather persecution of religion disguised as freedom.
China ensures that what one preaches coincides only with what the Communist Party wants the people to believe, he said, adding that the human rights situation in the country was at its worst point since the days of Mao Zedong.
There are close to 10 million Catholics in China, although they are divided between those who follow the official church – whose bishops are appointed by the government – and those who follow the Roman Catholic Pope, who practice their faith in underground churches and face persecution.
The new regulations ban those who have not obtained the government’s permission to practice religious professions, and insist that groups without the proper authorization will not be able to receive donations or spread religious information online, along with other restrictions.
Those who do not follow the regulations will face harsher sanctions, including fines of between 100,000 yuan ($15,899) and 300,000 yuan for organizing big religious events without government permission.
China Aid warns that the new regulations give officials more power over the faithful in China, and the NGO fears they will not hesitate to use it.
One of the youths who regularly attend one of these underground churches, on condition of anonymity, complained to EFE that the restrictions are increasingly stricter.
They usually hold mass at home, although they rotate the location to avoid being detected, he said, adding that priests, who preside over these secret meetings, are now at a greater risk.
The stricter regulations have not surprised priests who are not recognized by the authorities, as is the case for Xiao (false name), who has been detained in the past for being part of a group of underground Catholics in China.
Xiao said that despite the new regulations, Beijing has always tried to force the priests to register, which they have always refused to do.
The restrictions not only affect Catholics but also Chinese Muslims, particularly in the country’s far west, as well as Buddhists.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that authorities have imposed new controls over Larung Gar, the most important independent Buddhist academy in Tibet.
HRW said that the monastery will be forced to teach students about the honor of the Communist Party and socialism, and train monks to defend a united Chinese motherland and maintain national unity and religious patriotism.