17 July 2019
A file photo shows Catholic worshippers at a mass at the government-sanctioned South Cathedral in Beijing. Chinese authorities have established new laws to monitor religious activities. Credit: AFP
A file photo shows Catholic worshippers at a mass at the government-sanctioned South Cathedral in Beijing. Chinese authorities have established new laws to monitor religious activities. Credit: AFP

Freedom of religion should be practiced, not just exist on paper

A nationwide campaign in China to remove crosses from Catholic and Protestant churches has been underway on-and-off for two to three years.

But Beijing recently stepped up its crackdown on Christians by outlawing the so-called “family churches”, i.e. small churches which have not registered with the State Administration for Religious Affairs or the China Christian Council.

Worse still, most of these “family churches” have been banned by the authorities in the absence of clear grounds: some of them were ordered to shut down for allegedly failing to meet official accounting standards, while some others were outlawed on grounds of non-compliance with fire safety regulations or purported tax evasions.

According to certain piecemeal information, some mainland Christian families were told that they must give up displaying their crosses at home and replace them with the portraits of President Xi Jinping in order to stay eligible for government financial allowances.

Meanwhile, the sources also said many “family churches” have been told to put overwhelming emphasis on the discussion of the “Xi Jinping Thought” and minimize religious discourse during their gatherings.

Elsewhere, according to foreign media, thousands of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region have been forcibly sent to “mind transformation camps”.

Some senior officials of the Chinese government had admitted the existence of these camps, even insisting that these “re-education camps” are necessary for the sake of both national and Xinjiang interests.

Some former inmates who were interviewed by western journalists said they were encouraged to give up their Islamic faith and listen more to Xi’s speeches during their incarceration in these camps.

In fact a substantial number of these inmates are actually not Chinese citizens, but foreign nationals from Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

These foreign Muslims ended up in these transformation camps in Xinjiang mainly because they happened to be active in the autonomous region and were often outspoken about their Islamic faith on social media, hence they were deemed “religious fundamentalists” by the Chinese authorities.

As a matter of fact, religious freedom is fully guaranteed by article 36 of the Chinese constitution, which stipulates that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.

No State organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.

The State protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State.”

Given this, the establishment of “mind transformation camps” targeting Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and Beijing’s campaign to remove church crosses across the nation are apparently in violation of the freedom of religious belief guaranteed under article 36 of the Chinese constitution.

Of course, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. And under the constitutional framework of China, citizens are allowed to enjoy religious freedom only when such freedom doesn’t disrupt social order, undermine the physical health of the public or obstruct the education system.

It is for this reason that pitching religion to people aged under 18 and carrying out missionary activities in public venues are strictly forbidden in the mainland.

In recent years, there has been mounting opposition among western societies against immigrants amid the escalating threats of terrorist attacks.

However, what the West didn’t do is to directly ban religious organizations that stand for Middle East refugees or religious organizations with patriarchal values. Nor did western governments mobilize their public against such relevant groups.

Instead, western societies have often demonstrated acceptance and inclusion towards the Islamic community in the wake of terrorist attacks, which is an illustration of unwavering confidence among western countries in their own systems.

By contrast, China, which has been repeatedly stressing the importance of building national confidence in its own system, has chosen to respond to domestic religious dissent with “sharp power”, which explains why an increasing number of Islamic countries have voiced their concern over Beijing’s act of sending Muslims into re-education camps.

In Hong Kong, a number of Christians and ministers of several Christian denominations have drawn up petitions urging Beijing to stop its crackdown on religious freedom.

As we all know, freedom and civil rights are not free, nor is there any guarantee that people would necessarily feel “comfortable” when others are exercising their rights and freedom.

The question, however, is would you want to be citizen of a society that doesn’t respect individual rights at all?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 22

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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