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China to impose new laws on foreigners to curb ‘religious extremism’

HONG KONG: Under new laws, foreign religious groups and worshipers could be the latest targets of a growing crackdown on organised religion in China.

Draft rules published this week by the Ministry of Justice called for new restrictions on how foreign worshipers operate in order to prevent the spreading of “religious extremism” or use of religion “to undermine China’s national or ethnic unity.”

The rules, currently open to public feedback but unlikely to change significantly from their current form, are just the latest move to control religious practise under Xi, who has repeatedly called for the “sinicization” of religion.

Xi has overseen a major clampdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the western region of Xinjiang, where some 2 million Uyghurs Muslims and other minorities have passed through “re-education camps” according to rights groups, as well as campaigns targeting Christian groups and Tibetan Buddhists.

Religion has always occupied a peculiar position in the People’s Republic of China. Officially an atheist state, the Communist government nonetheless licenses five official faiths and effectively decides on matters such as the ordination of bishops and reincarnation.

Those faiths — Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism — are supervised by official organisations such as the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Buddhist Association of China, which are in turn overseen by the ruling Communist Party’s powerful United Front Work Department.

Practice outside the bounds of these groups is strictly controlled, and underground churches, sects and even private religious study groups are periodically cracked down upon.

For foreigners, there is generally more freedom, provided they avoid anything that smacks of proselytisation.

In a 2018 white paper on religion, the Chinese government noted that certain faiths had “long been controlled and utilized by colonialists and imperialists.”

Though the draft rules affirm China’s commitment to respecting “the freedom of religious belief of foreigners,” the list of potential new restrictions and requirements could make practising that belief far more difficult.

In particular, the draft rules include a list of activities that foreigners should not conduct within China, such as “interfering with or dominating the affairs of Chinese religious groups,” advocating “extremist religious thoughts,” using religion to conduct terrorist activities, or “interfering with the appointment or management of Chinese clergy members.”

The last point appears aimed at the Vatican, with whom China has a longstanding dispute over the appointment of bishops by the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Beijing insists on having the final say on all bishop appointments in mainland China, while the Holy See maintains that only the Pope has such authority.

The two sides struck a secretive and hugely controversial deal in 2018, which was extended for another two years this October, but talks on a more permanent arrangement appear to have stalled.

In a book published this week, Pope Francis referred to Uyghurs as a “persecuted people” for the first time, a phrase that angered Beijing.

“What Pope Francis said about the Uyghurs is totally groundless,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a regular briefing Tuesday. “There are 56 ethnic groups in China, and the Uyghur ethnic group is an equal member of the big family of the Chinese nation.”

“The Chinese government has always treated the minority groups equally and protected their legitimate rights and interests,” Zhao added.