China’s government is considering requiring foreign visitors who want to hold a religious activity to first provide extensive information about who is attending and what they are reading, before the service can receive government permission.
Authorities say they are proposing the new restrictions to try to stop foreigners from spreading "religious extremism" or from using religion "to undermine China's national or ethnic unity.” The regulations also would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners.
The draft regulations, published by the Ministry of Justice in mid-November, require foreign worshippers who want to host religious activities in China to apply for a permit and demonstrate they are “friendly to China” in their country of origin.
Religious activities in China usually are organized by official organizations, such as the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Buddhist Association of China, which are overseen by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. In the past, foreigners living in China could attend or hold small services as long as they remained low-key.
Experts say the new regulations, which are currently open to public comments and are expected to become law early next year, are aimed at tightening gray areas around foreign religious groups and worshippers inside the country.
Permission to worship
Section two of the draft regulation specifies what foreign missionaries need to provide when applying for a permit to hold religious activities, including describing the primary religious texts used, listing all attendees’ names, visa status and nationalities, and giving a detailed program of the service.
The permit process, and the potential punishments for avoiding it, could make it far more difficult for foreigners to hold religious services and push them to use government-approved Bibles or Korans rather than foreign-published texts.
Another key feature of the new draft rules is to prevent foreign missionaries from preaching to Chinese citizens. Article 17 says “religious activities organized by foreigners in China are limited to be attended by only foreign citizens.”
Massimo Introvigne, editor-in-chief of the Italy-based religious freedom magazine Bitter Winter, told VOA the Chinese authorities worry that house churches in China are becoming more active due to preaching from foreign missionaries.
“The only thing the Chinese may be concerned about is missionaries from abroad, especially those from South Korea. Because ethnic Koreans are a minority in China, they receive missionaries from [South] Korea,” he said, adding these missionaries usually enter China with tourist visas.
Mr. Zhang, a worshipper who attends a house church in China, said he’s seeing an increasing number of foreign missionaries in China. “They are mainly Christians from South Korea, very devoted, very hardworking,” he told VOA.
China already has stepped up its effort to crack down on foreign missionaries who preach in China since President Xi Jinping came to power, saying the country must “resist foreign religious infiltration.”
Targeting ethnic Chinese from abroad
Article 39 of the draft also specifies that the rules will apply to people of Chinese descent who live in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas.
“Upon arriving on Chinese soil, foreigners, including overseas Chinese, may not preach illegally among Chinese citizens, develop believers or accept religious donations from Chinese citizens.” The regulation says “they shall not conduct religious education and training."
Over the years, overseas Chinese Christians have advocated for "short-term missions" to China. While visiting relatives in China, some of them organize short-term training for the locals. Some say their activities are on the same level as those of South Korean missionaries.
Pastor Lin oversees a house church in China’s coastal Jiangsu province. He said there is no way to estimate the number of overseas Chinese who come to China to preach.
"All I can say is their number is pretty large, and they are pretty popular,” he told VOA, adding they can meet the preaching need of some local churches.
Yet he said the authorities now already have stepped up control. “They are encouraging students to ‘supervise’ their teachers; it’s pretty messy,” Lin said.
Christian worshipper Zhang said that foreign missionaries in China should adjust their strategies under the current environment. "The authorities usually turn a blind eye when the scale of religious activities is small,” he said. “Now, sometimes the gatherings get big and would be harshly cracked down [upon], missionaries expelled, and meeting places knocked down.”
Yet he said he understands the situation. “These foreigners should recognize they are in China and adjust their strategies. Because we are not in Taiwan, the United States, or South Korea … there are fundamental differences in our political systems," Zhang added.