China's New Religious Regulations Take Effect

China is implementing new regulations that the government says will protect freedom of faith, news agencies reported Monday. While the guidelines, which take effect today, are meant to give a legal framework for China’s constitutional promise of freedom of religion, critics contend that the broad guidelines could instead be used to persecute religious groups deemed troublesome by authorities.

With 48 articles and seven chapters, the new Regulations on Religious Affairs cover everything—from how licensed organizations can accept religious donations and claim tax exemptions to how religious institutions may accept foreign students, among other topics.

Under existing laws, communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches, temples or mosques. According to the 2004 International Report on Religious Freedom, the China Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Some analysts have said that the new regulations indicated a stepping up of the supervision of religions.

"We're still talking about a socialist atheist state with the dominant ideology that religion is a bad thing," Human Rights in China research director Nicolas Becquelin, told Agence France-Presse in December. "But over the past 20 years the state has moved from trying to stamp out religion to trying to manage it."

Egil Lothe of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, similarly said the regulations offer "an improvement on present practices" because they give clearer procedures for registering religious groups and institutions.

But, "to what extent the regulations will change other aspects of Chinese policies on religion remains to be seen," Lothe told the Associated Press.

It has been noted, however, that the rules still required religious groups to register with the state—a de-facto approval process that has barred myriad groups from being recognized as legal religious entities.

"The government is still using registration to enforce political control and there is no way to appeal the process," Becquelin said.

Earlier this week, Becquelin told AP, “The law purports to protect 'normal' religious activities that in effect means religious activities expressly authorized by the state through a system of compulsory licensing and mandatory inspections.”

Becquelin said overly broad regulations have been used as a pretext to "suspend, ban, suppress, religious congregations as well as fine, detain or arrest religious practitioners."

Meanwhile, other foreign observers say the outcome of the new rules remains uncertain.

According to AP, China, which has banned many religious or spiritual groups, will convene its annual legislative session Saturday in Beijing.