Foreign religious groups and worshipers could be the latest targets of a growing crackdown on organized religion in China under President Xi Jinping.
Draft rules published this week by the Ministry of Justice call 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 practice 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 and other minorities have passed through “reeducation 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 organizations 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. Many faiths not officially recognized by the government – Mormonism, Judaism, Quakers – are able to operate in China, provided the only worshippers are foreign citizens.
Sensitivity over foreign religious groups remains strong, however. 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 practicing 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.
Other parts of the draft rules seem to target Islamic groups, which have come under immense pressure in recent years, both in Xinjiang and across China, where there are an estimated 23 million known Muslims, according to the most recent census data.
In an article that explicitly linked the new rules with recent acts of Islamic extremism in Europe, the state-backed Global Times quoted a former top religious official as saying the proposed regulations show “China’s swift response to the growing global challenge – the threat of religious extremism to political stability, and the social panic and disorder caused by religious extremism.”
Rian Thum, an expert on Islam in China at the University of Nottingham, said the rules reflect a “longstanding fear of foreign pollution, which has become more important in the current climate.”
“I was struck by the repeated use of the phrase ‘China’s religious independence,’ which points to the nationalist desire to purify religions of ‘foreign’ influences,” he said. “The regulations look like an effort to seal off Chinese religious practitioners from their fellow believers outside the country. Even lectures by visiting religious figures would require a bureaucratic permissions process that would dissuade most visitors.”
Under Xi’s push to “sinicize” religions in the country, places of worship have been stripped of overtly religious symbols and iconography, Muslim graveyards and mosques have been destroyed, and Xi’s image has been hung up in religious buildings. According to a recent analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), around one in three mosques in Xinjiang have been demolished, mostly since 2017.
Speaking last week, a spokesman for the Xinjiang government said reports about the destruction of mosques and other religious sites were “completely untrue.”
For all the government’s talk of sinicizing Islam, most Muslims in China practice a domestic version of the faith, said Alkan Akad, a China researcher at Amnesty International, in mosques that are often more Chinese in style than Islamic. Those Muslims who do have contact with groups overseas often face increased scrutiny over this, and some Uyghurs have ended up in reeducation camps after returning from Hajj or trips to Muslim countries.
The flipside of sinicization is a move towards “de-Arabization” or “de-Saudification,” buzzwords that are used by Chinese officials in regard to fears of growing foreign influence over Islam in China.
“The Chinese state has been quite concerned about the growing popularity of the Wahhabi ideology and close connections with Saudi Arabia, which has seemingly grown over the last decade or so,” Akad said.
Darren Byler, a Xinjiang expert and post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Colorado, said that “Islam itself is already more or less criminalized in Xinjiang so I would guess that (the new rules are) more likely aimed at Hui practice in Eastern China. They have long had more direct association with Saudi and global piety movements like Tabligh Jama’at.”
The Hui minority – most of whom are Chinese-speaking Muslims – have come under increasing pressure in recent months, as the government turns its attention to its largest Muslim group outside of Xinjiang.
However, experts who spoke to CNN agreed that the main effect of the new rules will likely be on Christian groups, who, while never given free rein, have previously avoided the type of intense scrutiny Muslims are subjected to.
“I believe it’s reasonable to assume that it mainly targets Christians, which have been regarded as a means of foreign infiltration particularly since the Opium War,” Akad said.
Previously there has been broad tolerance for foreigners preaching to foreigners, provided they are officially licensed and ensure no Chinese citizens attend services. Some Christian groups are less scrupulous about this than others, and missionaries continue to operate illegally in China, Thum said.
The new regulations could further tighten grey areas around foreign religious practice, issuing strict new requirements for applying to hold services, including describing the primary religious texts used, listing the nationality and visa status of all attendees, and obtaining a permit to use the building for such activities.
After receiving such an application, the draft rules state, “the religious affairs department of the provincial people’s government shall solicit the religious affairs department of the county-level people’s government, the religious affairs department of the people’s government of the city divided into districts, and the province, autonomous region,” and shall make a decision “within 20 days.”
Such red tape, and the potential punishments for avoiding it, could make it far more difficult for foreigners to hold services, and push them to use approved Bibles or Korans rather than foreign published texts.
While specific punishments are not listed in the new proposal, there is a suggestion they could be severe, with talk of invoking “counter espionage” laws and other state security regulations against infractors.
“The way the rules are written, and the way that Chinese laws tend to be interpreted by the security services, suggests that foreigners who engage in religious activities alongside Chinese citizens or even do research on those activities could be detained or harassed,” Thum said.
CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed reporting.