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Freedom of religion in China
U.S. Department of State

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Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor - February 25, 2004

Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government sought to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups. There are five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. A government-affiliated association monitored and supervised the activities of each of the five faiths. Membership in religions was growing rapidly. While the Government generally did not seek to suppress this growth outright, it tried to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of sources of authority outside the control of the Government and the Party.

Overall, government respect for religious freedom remained poor. Even though freedom to participate in religious activity increased in many areas of the country, crackdowns in some locations against unregistered groups, including underground Protestant and Catholic groups; Muslim Uighurs; and Tibetan Buddhists (see Tibet Addendum) continued. The Government continued its repression of groups that it determined to be "cults" and of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in particular. During the SARS crisis, the Government arrested hundreds of Falun Gong adherents and others whom it accused of preaching doomsday messages and disrupting anti-SARS activity. The atmosphere created by the nationwide campaign against Falun Gong reportedly had a spillover effect on unregistered churches, temples, and mosques in many parts of the country.

All religious groups and spiritual movements were required to register with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA, formerly known as the central Religious Affairs Bureau) or its provincial and local offices (still known as Religious Affairs Bureaus (RABs)). SARA and the RABs were responsible for monitoring and judging the legitimacy of religious activity. SARA and the Communist Party's United Front Work Department provided policy "guidance and supervision" over implementation of government regulations on religious activity. In December 2001, all members of the Politburo Standing Committee attended a Party Work Conference on religion at which then-President Jiang Zemin and then-Premier Zhu Rongji gave speeches praising the social work being done by numerous religious institutions. They urged "mainstream" religious groups to register with the Government and, at the same time, called for stepped-up measures to eliminate "non-mainstream" religious groups.

This national campaign to require religious groups and places of worship to register or to come under the supervision of official "patriotic" religious organizations continued and, in some places, intensified during the year. Some groups registered voluntarily, some registered under pressure, some avoided officials in an attempt to avoid registration, and authorities refused to register others. Some unofficial groups reported that authorities refused them registration without explanation. The Government contended that these refusals were mainly the result of failure to meet requirements concerning facilities and meeting spaces. Many religious groups were reluctant to comply with the regulations out of principled opposition to state control of religion or due to fear of adverse consequences if they revealed, as required, the names and addresses of church leaders and members.

However, in some areas, supervision of religious activity was minimal, and registered and unregistered churches were treated similarly by authorities. Coexistence and cooperation between official and unofficial churches, both Catholic and Protestant, in such areas were close enough to blur the line between the two. In some areas, congregants worshiped in both types of churches. In others, underground churches procured Bibles with the help of colleagues in registered churches. In many areas, small house churches and "family" churches were generally tolerated by the authorities, so long as they remained small and unobtrusive. Some of these churches reportedly encountered difficulty when their memberships became too large, when they arranged for the use of facilities for the specific purpose of conducting religious activities, or when they forged links with other unregistered groups or when links with overseas organizations came to light. Official churches also sometimes have faced harassment when local authorities wished to acquire the land on which a church was located. In addition to refusing to register churches, in recent years there have been reports that RAB officials demanded illegal "donations" from churches in their jurisdictions in order to raise revenue.

Leaders of unauthorized groups were sometimes the targets of harassment, interrogation, detention, and physical abuse. Police closed scores of "underground" mosques, temples, seminaries, Catholic churches, and Protestant "house churches," including many with significant memberships, properties, financial resources, and networks. Authorities particularly targeted unofficial religious groups in locations where there were rapidly growing numbers of unregistered churches, or in places of long-seated conflict between official and unofficial churches, such as with Catholics in Baoding, Hebei Province, and Chengle, Fujian Province.

The Government intensified pressure against Protestant house churches and their leaders during the year. In April and May, Protestant house churches in Anshan, Liaoning Province, reportedly were raided and worshippers detained. In June, six house churches in locations across the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region were reportedly closed by authorities and their leaders detained. In June, underground Christians in Funing County, Yunnan Province, were detained for several days after they attended a meeting with local officials to ostensibly discuss registration. Also in June, an unofficial seminary in Kunming, Yunnan Province, was closed and some of the students were detained. In September, house church historian Zhang Yinan and legal advisor to the South China Church Xiao Biguang were among approximately 100 Christians detained in Nanyang, Henan Province. While Xiao was released a month later, Zhang was sentenced to 2 years of reeducation through labor. He was reportedly beaten in the camp. In October, Beijing-based house Christian Liu Fenggang was detained in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang Province, for conducting an investigation into reports of church demolitions and detention of leaders in the Local Assembly ("Little Flock") church. In July, a large church was reportedly closed by police; many worshippers were detained briefly and church leaders were "invited to attend a seminar" for a number of days before being permitted to return home. Liu was charged with illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities, a charge activists believe was related to Liu's providing information about his investigation to overseas NGOs. Beijing police also seized Liu's computer equipment and files. Two other house Christians, Beijing homeless advocate Dr. Xu Yonghai and Jilin Internet writer Zhang Shengqi, also remained detained at year's end, allegedly for supporting Liu.

A number of Catholic priests and lay leaders also were beaten or otherwise abused during the year. For example, underground Catholic officials in Fujian and Jiangxi provinces were harassed and detained in April and May. On June 16, a priest in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, was detained while preparing to administer sacraments to a dying Catholic. In Hebei Province, where approximately half of the country's Catholics reside, friction between unofficial Catholics and local authorities continued. Hebei authorities have forced many underground priests and believers to choose between joining the Patriotic Church or facing fines, job losses, periodic detentions, and, in some cases, the removal of their children from school. Some Catholics have been forced into hiding. In July, five underground clergy in Baoding, Hebei Province, reportedly were detained when they attempted to visit a priest recently released from reeducation through labor. Reliable sources also reported that Bishop An Shuxin, Bishop Zhang Weizhu, Father Cui Xing, and Father Wang Quanjun remained detained in Hebei Province. Underground Bishop Su Zhimin, who had been unaccounted for since his reported detention in 1997, was reportedly hospitalized in November for treatment of eye and heart ailments in Baoding, Hebei Province. Reports suggest that he had been held in a form of "house arrest" until his illness required hospitalization. Authorities sometimes used house arrest against religious leaders to avoid going through the official security and justice systems. The Government continued to deny any knowledge of Bishop Su's whereabouts or health condition and claimed that it had not taken any "coercive measures" against him.

Authorities also have destroyed or seized unregistered places of worship. On June 6, a church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang Province, was torn down, although local officials maintain the demolition occurred for zoning reasons. On September 10, a church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, was reportedly torn down because it was used to hold illegal gatherings. Visitors to Xinjiang Autonomous Region also reported that mosques have been destroyed, although some attributed the demolition as much to inter-religious conflict between Hui and Uighur Muslims as to Government antagonism. Leaders of the official Christian church reported mixed success in regaining use of Church property confiscated by the Government shortly after the 1949 Communist revolution.

The Government continued to restore or rebuild some churches, temples, mosques, and monasteries damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and allowed the reopening of some seminaries during the year. The number of restored and rebuilt temples, churches, and mosques remained inadequate to accommodate the recent increase in religious believers. The difficulty in registering new places of worship led to serious overcrowding in existing places of worship in some areas. Some observers cited the lack of adequate meeting space in registered churches to explain the rapid rise in attendance at house churches and "underground" churches.

The law does not prohibit religious believers from holding public office; however, most influential positions in government were reserved for Party members, and Party officials stated that Party membership and religious belief are incompatible. Party membership also was required for almost all high-level positions in government and in state-owned businesses and organizations. The Party reportedly issued circulars ordering Party members not to adhere to religious beliefs. The Routine Service Regulations of the People's Liberation Army state explicitly that servicemen "may not take part in religious or superstitious activities." Party and PLA personnel have been expelled for adhering to Falun Gong beliefs. In November, an international company that employs over 100,000 women in the country reported that it had revised its Chinese sales force agreement to remove an explicit ban on Falun Gong members.

Despite official regulations encouraging officials to be atheists, in some localities as many as 25 percent of Party officials engaged in some kind of religious activity. Most of these officials practiced Buddhism or a folk religion. The National People's Congress (NPC) included several religious representatives. Two of the NPC Standing Committee's vice chairmen are Fu Tieshan, a bishop and vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai, a Tibetan "reincarnate lama." Religious groups also were represented in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory forum for "multiparty" cooperation and consultation led by the CCP, and in local and provincial governments. During the year, Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs Ye Xiaowen publicly emphasized that the guiding "Three Represents" ideology includes serving the interests of "the more than 100 million persons with religious beliefs." In a widely reported July speech, he stated that "upholding the propaganda and education on atheism and upholding the policy on freedom of religious belief are both correct and necessary."

The authorities permitted officially sanctioned religious organizations to maintain international contacts that did not involve "foreign control"; what constitutes "control" was not defined. Regulations ban proselytizing by foreigners. For the most part, authorities allowed foreign nationals to preach to foreigners in approved, registered places of worship, bring in religious materials for personal use, and preach to citizens at churches, mosques, and temples at the invitation of registered religious organizations. Collective religious activities of foreigners also were required to take place at officially registered places of worship or approved temporary locations. Foreigners legally were barred from conducting missionary activities, but many foreign Christians teaching English and other subjects on college campuses openly professed their faith with minimum interference from authorities.

Many Christian groups throughout the country have developed close ties with local officials, in some cases running schools to help educate children who otherwise would receive a substandard education and operating homes for the care of the aged. Likewise, Buddhist-run private schools and orphanages in the central part of the country not only educated children but also offered vocational training courses to teenagers and young adults.

Official religious organizations administered local religious schools, seminaries, and institutes to train priests, ministers, imams, Islamic scholars, and Buddhist monks. Students who attended these institutes had to demonstrate "political reliability," and all graduates must pass an examination on their political as well as theological knowledge to qualify for the clergy. The Government permitted limited numbers of Catholic and Protestant seminarians, Muslim clerics, and Buddhist clergy to go abroad for additional religious studies. In most cases, funding for these training programs was provided by foreign organizations.

Both official and unofficial Christian churches had problems training adequate numbers of clergy to meet the needs of their growing congregations. No priests or other clergy in the official churches were ordained between 1955 and 1985, creating a severe shortfall in certain age groups. Due to government prohibitions, unofficial churches had particularly significant problems training clergy or sending students to study overseas, and many clergy received only limited and inadequate preparation. Members of the underground Catholic Church, particularly clergy wishing to further their studies abroad, found it difficult to obtain passports and other necessary travel documents (see Section 2.d.). Some Catholic clerics also complained that they were forced to bribe local RAB officials before being allowed to enter seminaries.

Traditional folk religions, such as the "Mazu cult" in Fujian Province, which is based on a legend, were still practiced in some locations. They were tolerated to varying degrees, often seen as loose affiliates of Taoism or as ethnic minority cultural practices. However, at the same time, folk religions have been labeled as "feudal superstition" and sometimes were repressed because their resurgence was seen as a threat to Party control. In recent years, local authorities have destroyed thousands of shrines; however, there were no reports of such destruction during the year.

Buddhists made up the largest body of organized religious believers. The traditional practice of Buddhism continued to expand among citizens in many parts of the country. Tibetan Buddhists in some areas outside of the TAR had growing freedom to practice their faith. However, some Government restrictions remained, particularly in cases in which the Government interpreted Buddhist belief as supporting separatism, such as in some Tibetan areas and parts of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Visits by official emissaries of the Dalai Lama and also by his brother, which occurred in July and September 2002, continued when Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama's representatives to the United States and Europe, respectively, made a second trip to the country in June. They met with officials and visited Shanghai, Beijing, and Tibetan areas in Yunnan Province (see Tibet Addendum).

Regulations restricting Muslims' religious activity, teaching, and places of worship continued to be implemented forcefully in Xinjiang. Authorities reportedly continued to prohibit the teaching of Islam to children under the age of 18 in areas where ethnic unrest has occurred and reserved the right to censor imams' sermons, particularly during sensitive religious holidays. For example, an independent imam in Kunming, Yunnan Province, was forced by the local patriotic association to stop preaching after he began to draw large crowds. Authorities believed his sermons were too fundamentalist in tone. In Xinjiang, authorities also treated fundamentalist Muslim leaders particularly harshly. In 2000, the authorities began conducting monthly political study sessions for religious personnel; the program reportedly continued during the year. The authorities also continued in some areas to discourage overt religious attire such as veils and to discourage religious marriage ceremonies. In addition, in some areas, fasting reportedly was prohibited or made difficult during Ramadan. There were numerous official media reports that the authorities confiscated illegal religious publications in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang People's Publication House was the only publisher allowed to print Muslim literature in Xinjiang, and stores reported that those selling literature not included on Government lists of permitted items risked closure.

In some areas where ethnic unrest has occurred, particularly among Central Asian Muslims (and especially the Uighurs) in Xinjiang, officials continued to restrict the building of mosques. However, in other areas, particularly in areas traditionally populated by the non-Central Asian Hui ethnic group, there was substantial religious building construction and renovation. Mosque destruction, which sometimes occurred in Xinjiang, occasionally resulted from intra-religious conflict.

The Government permitted Muslim citizens to make the Hajj to Mecca and in some cases subsidized the journey. In 2002, approximately 2,000 persons were permitted to make the Hajj with government-organized delegations, while up to an additional 2,000 privately organized Hajjis went on their own after securing government approval. Other Muslims made the trip to Mecca via third countries. Uighur Muslims reportedly had greater difficulty getting permission to make the Hajj than other Muslim groups, such as Hui Muslims. Factors limiting Chinese Muslims' participation in the Hajj included costs and controls on passport issuance.

There were no diplomatic relations between the Government and the Holy See, although foreign Catholic officials visited during the year. While both Government and Vatican authorities stated that they would welcome an agreement to normalize relations, issues concerning the role of the Pope in selecting bishops and the status of underground Catholic clerics have frustrated efforts to reach this goal. Some bishops in the official Catholic Church were not openly recognized by the Holy See, although many have been recognized privately. Frequently, bishops were first consecrated and later sought Papal approval of their consecrations, sometimes secretly, causing tensions between the Government and the Vatican. Newly nominated bishops seeking unofficial Papal approval frequently found themselves at odds with other church leaders, who were sympathetic to the Central Government and who insisted that consecrations of new bishops be conducted by more senior bishops not recognized by the Vatican. Catholic priests in the official church also faced dilemmas when asked by parishioners whether they should follow Church doctrine or government policy restricting the number of children per family. This dilemma was particularly acute when discussing abortion.

Government relations with the unofficial Catholic Church worsened somewhat. After the July 1 demonstration in Hong Kong against legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law, the Government was stricter toward the underground Catholic Church, in part because the Government accused Hong Kong Catholic leader Bishop Joseph Zen of having a negative influence on his mainland coreligionists. The Government's refusal to allow the official Catholic Church to recognize the authority of the Papacy in matters such as the ordination of bishops led many Catholics to refuse to join the official Catholic Church on the grounds that this refusal denies one of the fundamental tenets of their faith.

There were no new reports of Nanjing Seminary professors or Protestant preachers purged for theological perspectives different from those held by Bishop Ding Guangxun, national leader of the official Protestant church. Foreign teachers were officially invited to teach at both Catholic and Protestant seminaries during the year.

The increase in the number of Christians resulted in a corresponding increase in the demand for Bibles, which were available for purchase at most officially recognized churches. Although the country had only one government-approved publisher of Bibles and distribution had been a problem, the shortage of Bibles in previous years appeared largely to have abated. Customs officials continued to monitor for the "smuggling" of Bibles and other religious materials into the country, but there were no new cases of significant punishments for Bible importation. There were credible reports that the authorities sometimes confiscated Bibles and other religious material in raids on house churches.

Weekly services of the foreign Jewish community in Beijing have been held uninterrupted since 1995, and High Holy Day observances have been allowed for more than 15 years. The Shanghai Jewish community was allowed to hold services in an historic Shanghai synagogue, which has been restored as a museum. Local authorities indicated that the community could use the synagogue in the future for special occasions on a case-by-case basis.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints meets regularly in a number of cities, but its membership was strictly limited to the expatriate community.

Requests by expatriate Protestant churches for permission to allow local Chinese to attend their services were rejected by the Government. Foreign Protestant missionaries, including several in Guangzhou, were expelled during the year. The Government claimed that those expelled had violated Chinese law.

Authorities singled out groups they considered to be "cults" for particularly severe treatment. These "cults" included not only Falun Gong and various traditional Chinese meditation and exercise groups (known collectively as "qigong" groups), but also religious groups that authorities accused of preaching beliefs outside the bounds of officially approved doctrine. For example, police continued their efforts to close down an underground evangelical group called the "Shouters," an offshoot of a pre-1949 indigenous Protestant group. The Government continued a general crackdown on such groups, including Eastern Lightning, the Association of Disciples, the Full Scope Church, the Spirit Sect, the New Testament Church, the Way of the Goddess of Mercy, the Lord God Sect, the Established King Church, the Unification Church, and the Family of Love. Authorities accused some in these groups of lacking proper theological training, preaching the imminent coming of the Apocalypse or holy war, or exploiting the reemergence of religion for personal gain.

Actions against such groups continued during the year. For example, police in January reportedly arrested over 100 members of the All-Scope Church in Henan Province and accused them of being a "doomsday cult." In February 2002, three members of the Blood and Water Holy Spirit Full Gospel Preaching Team were sentenced to 7 years in prison for "using a cult organization to violate the law" in Xiamen, Fujian Province. In December 2001, Gong Shengliang, founder of the South China Church, was sentenced to death on criminal charges including rape, arson, and assault. In 2002, an appeals court overturned his death sentence, and Gong was sentenced to life in prison. In the retrial, four women from his congregation claimed that, prior to the first trial, police had tortured them into signing statements accusing Gong of raping them. The four women, who were found not guilty of "cultist activity" in the retrial, were nonetheless immediately sent to reeducation-through-labor camps. In the retrial, the court also dropped all "evil cult" charges against the South China Church.

During the year, the Government continued its harsh and comprehensive campaign against the Falun Gong. There were allegations that hundreds of individuals received criminal, administrative, and extrajudicial punishment for practicing Falun Gong, admitting that they believed in Falun Gong, or simply refusing to denounce the organization or its founder. While the campaign against Falun Gong appeared to have abated somewhat in eastern and southern China, it continued in other provinces. During the SARS epidemic, the Government launched new accusations that Falun Gong practitioners were disrupting SARS-prevention efforts. State-run media claimed that, beginning in April, Falun Gong followers "incited public panic" and otherwise "sabotaged" anti-SARS efforts in many provinces by preaching that belief in Falun Gong will prevent persons from contracting SARS. Authorities detained hundreds of Falun Gong adherents on such charges, including 69 in Jiangsu Province during May and 180 in Hebei Province during June.

Since the Government banned the Falun Gong in 1999, the mere belief in the discipline (even without any public manifestation of its tenets) has been sufficient grounds for practitioners to receive punishments ranging from loss of employment to imprisonment. Although the vast majority of the tens of thousands of practitioners detained since 2000 have been released, thousands reportedly remained in reeducation-through-labor camps. Those identified by the Government as "core leaders" have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment. More than a dozen Falun Gong members have been sentenced to prison for the crime of "endangering state security," but the great majority of Falun Gong members convicted by the courts since 1999 have been sentenced to prison for "organizing or using a sect to undermine the implementation of the law," a less serious offense. Most practitioners, however, were punished administratively. In addition to being sentenced to reeducation through labor, some Falun Gong members were sent to detention facilities specifically established to "rehabilitate" practitioners who refused to recant their belief voluntarily. In addition, hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners have been confined to mental hospitals (see Section 1.d).

Police often used excessive force when detaining peaceful Falun Gong protesters, including some who were elderly or who were accompanied by small children. During the year, there were further allegations of abuse of Falun Gong practitioners by the police and other security personnel. Since 1997, at least several hundred Falun Gong adherents reportedly have died while in police custody (see Section 1.a.). In December, Liu Chengjun, sentenced to 19 years in prison in March 2002 for involvement in illegal Falun Gong television broadcasts, was reportedly beaten to death by police in Jilin City Prison. In February 2002, Chengdu University Associate Professor Zhang Chuansheng died in prison after being arrested for his involvement with Falun Gong. Prison authorities claimed he died of a heart attack, but witnesses who saw his body claimed he had been severely beaten.

Falun Gong practitioners continued their efforts to overcome government attempts to restrict their right to free assembly, particularly in Beijing, but the extent of Falun Gong public activity in the country continued to decline considerably (see Section 2.b.). The Government initiated a comprehensive effort to round up practitioners not already in custody and sanctioned the use of high-pressure tactics and mandatory anti-Falun Gong study sessions to force practitioners to renounce Falun Gong. Even practitioners who had not protested or made other public demonstrations of belief reportedly were forced to attend anti-Falun Gong classes or were sent directly to reeducation-through-labor camps, where in some cases, beatings and torture reportedly were used to force them to recant. These tactics reportedly resulted in large numbers of practitioners signing pledges to renounce the movement.

Authorities also detained foreign Falun Gong practitioners. For example, in January, two Australian citizens were deported for engaging in Falun Gong activities in Sichuan Province. In November 2001, more than 30 foreigners and citizens resident abroad were detained in Beijing as they demonstrated in support of the Falun Gong. They were expelled from the country; some credibly reported being mistreated while in custody.

During the year, the authorities also continued a general crackdown on other groups considered to be "cults," often using the 1999 decision to ban cults under Article 300 of the Criminal Law. Regulations require all qigong groups to register with the Government. Those that did not were declared illegal. The Zhong Gong qigong group, which reportedly had a following rivaling that of Falun Gong, was banned in 2000. This created an atmosphere of uncertainty for many qigong practitioners, and there were reports that some qigong practitioners feared practicing or teaching openly. In February 2001, Zhang Xinying, vice chairman of the Chinese Society of Religious Studies, said that the rise of "cults" was due to frequent abuse of the concept of "religious freedom" by "some persons with ulterior motives." Other senior leaders made similar comments in the context of criticizing Falun Gong.

The Government taught atheism in schools. While the Government claimed that there were no national-level regulations barring children from receiving religious instruction, in some regions local authorities barred persons under 18 from attending services at mosques, temples, or churches.

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