The U.S. Department of State has re-designated China as one of the top violators of religious freedom in the world in its recently released annual report on international religious freedom.
Released on Nov. 8, the International Religious Freedom Report 2005 is the seventh since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998. The report seeks to examine barriers to religious freedom in different countries and has showed the U.S. commitment to promote religious tolerance across the world. In addition, it is designed to monitor the progress of religious rights development in each country.
Among the 197 countries and territories being screened, the 2005 report re-designated 8 countries Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) for severe violations of religious freedom. The same countries were listed as CPCs in the 2004 report.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador John Hanford made comments during the submission of the report to the U.S. Congress at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Both acknowledged that among the eight CPCs, each country represented different progress in religious freedom.
Specifically, Hanford commented that China and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated a willingness to engage with the United States to improve religious freedom, according to sources from the U.S. State Department.
China, the biggest country among the CPCs, has attracted much concern from international community.
"The Government's respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor, especially for many unregistered religious groups," states the report on China, which including Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau. "Members of some unregistered religious groups, including Protestant and Catholic groups, were subjected to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment, and detention."
While the report noted that "the extent of religious freedom varied widely within the country," it also claimed that "official tolerance for Buddhism and Taoism has been greater than that for Christianity."
The report did note, however, that the new religious legislation that took effect on Mar. 1, 2005 has the potential to improve respect for religious freedom and to enhance legal protection for religious groups," despite the controversy raised by many human rights groups and Christian leaders.
First of all, unlike the previous regulations since 1994, the new legislation "protects the rights of registered religious group, under certain conditions, to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations." In addition, it no longer classifies the five main religions Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism as "official religions."
The report by the U.S. Department of State cited some commentators as saying "the new regulations could create opportunities for other faiths and previously unregistered groups to expand their presence in China". On the other hand, critics say it could also be dangerous as it gives authorities "broad discretion to define which religious activities are permissible."
Prior to the new regulation, almost all local Religious Affairs Bureaus (RAB) officials require Protestant churches to affiliate with the (Protestant) Three-Self Patriotic Movement/Chinese Christian Council (TSPM/CCC). However, now in few regions, evangelical Protestant groups that have refused to affiliate with the TSPM/CCC because of theological differences, have began registering without affiliating with the TSPM/CCC, according to the report,.
Examples cited by the report include the Local Assemblies Protestant churches in Zhejiang Province, where no significant TSPM/CCC community exists, and the (Korean) Chaoyang Church in Jilin Province.
"In other regions, officially post-denominational Protestant churches informally aligned themselves with Protestant denominations. Some pastors in official churches said that denominational affiliation was an important way of drawing parishioners," the report added.
As President Bush is due to visit Beijing and hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao next week, the religious freedom issue in China will remain a hot topic.
According to Reuters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Wednesday, "We've made our views very clear when it comes to our support for religious freedom... And we will continue to speak out on those issues."