13 things to know about religious persecution in China

  • 2 Mar 2017

All forms of religious activity were banned in China between 1966 and 1976, during then-President Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Religion is not banned anymore – on paper. But persecution is rife.

China has been a multi-religious country since ancient times. ( TRT World and Agencies )

Religious persecution is on the rise in China since President Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) five years ago, a new report by Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation found.

Detractors say Freedom House's operates from a Christian-centric and anti-Marxist-Leninist bias.

But there's no doubt that in China, religion is under threat.

Here's more, in 13 points:

1. Religion and China sit uneasily together: Religion and spirituality have been two main components of Chinese culture and identity for centuries.

This fact posed a challenge for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an atheist institution that banned party officials from practising religion while in office when it came to power in 1949.

Even today, it's still an issue: "Those who believe in religion shall not join the Chinese Communist Party," said Zhu Weiqun, director of the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in 2013.

The Chinese government formally recognises only five religious doctrines: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. (TRT World and Agencies)

2. The Communist Party's strategies for dealing with religiosity in Chinese society have fluctuated in the decades since. Today, only five religions are officially recognised by the state:

3. Under Chairman Mao, it was never easy to express one's faith: All forms of religious activity and organisation were banned between 1966 and 1976, during the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement led by then-President Mao Zedong.

The movement was aimed at preserving communist ideology in China and stamping out religion.

4. Desecration of religious sites became a watchword of the regime: Thousands of monasteries, churches, and mosques were destroyed. Monks were disrobed, while unknown numbers of religious believers were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

5. Discrimination looks to have gotten "smart": After Mao's death, the party abandoned his policies. It favoured a more regulatory approach instead.

"Combining both violent and nonviolent methods, the party's policies are designed to curb the rapid growth of religious communities and eliminate certain beliefs and practises, while also harnessing aspects of religion that could serve the regime's political and economic interests," Freedom House said.

In 1978, the constitution guaranteed religious freedom: "No state organ, public organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion."

Graphic shows the spectrum of persecution against religious groups. (TRT World and Agencies)

6. But it's still brutal: Crackdowns on unregistered and even state-sanctioned places of worship and religious leaders have increased. Several clerics have received long prison terms and constraints on children's ability to participate in religious life have multiplied.

7. Falun Gong practitioners face human rights violations: Freedom House verified 933 cases of Falun Gong practitioners sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years between January 2013 and June 2016, often for exercising their right to freedom of expression, in addition to freedom of religion.

"The Communist Party [initiated] the worst instance of religious persecution since the Cultural Revolution, with the clampdown against Falun Gong," said Andre Laliberte, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

8. Control over religion deepens in Xinjiang: Authorities put local restrictions on issues such as religious dress in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where a majority of Uighur Muslims reside.

Campaigns to closely monitor smartphone usage and to force businesses to sell alcohol have been launched. Incidents of security forces opening fire on civilians have become a common thing.

"The rule is, if I go to your house, read some Quran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail," a Uighur woman from Xinjiang now living in the United States said.

9. Taoists and Chinese Buddhists are Xi's tools for building state legitimacy: Freedom House said Xi created an environment of relatively low persecution for Chinese Buddhists, and continued to view Taoism as an attractive tool for building legitimacy on the basis of traditional Chinese culture.

"His actions and rhetoric portray Chinese Buddhism as an increasingly important channel for realising the party's political and economic goals at home and abroad," it said.

10. Tibetan Buddhists were detained: Tibetan Buddhism has revived significantly since the Cultural Revolution. It has gained millions of new believers over the past decade.

The Chinese authorities impose constraints on the religious practise of Tibetan Buddhists. According to Freedom House, at least 321 Tibetans have been detained since November 2012 in connection with religious activism or expression.

11. Cross removals and church demolitions continue: Although relations between Beijing and the Vatican have warmed since March 2013, Catholic churches have been subjected to the forced removal of their crosses. Protestants have been particularly affected by cross-removal and church-demolition campaigns. Some human rights lawyers have been arrested because they took on Christians' cases.

12. There's a crackdown on Hui Muslims: Hui Muslims also have experienced some intensified restrictions. Children's religious study has been banned, displays of halal signs restricted, and a crackdown on Salafi Hui Muslims launched.

13. International censure continues: The Chinese government has faced severe criticism from international human rights groups for its restrictions on religion.

"The government restricts religious practise to five officially recognised religions and only in officially approved religious premises. The government audits the activities, employee details, and financial records of religious bodies, and retains control over religious personnel appointments, publications, and seminary applications," Human Rights Watch said last year.