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Official Chinese Newspaper Publishes Call to Change Religion Policy

Religious freedom experts are surprised and cautiously optimistic, but disagree on proposal.

A leading Chinese religious scholar called the country ready for "an institutional guarantee for the legality and equality of all religions," according to a December article in China Daily, the official government English language newspaper. Religious freedom experts say they are cautiously optimistic about the public pronouncement.

In an interview, Chinese entrepreneur, researcher and religion expert Liu Peng called for a "system [to] be developed in such a way as to let more religious affairs be governed by law, instead of through administrative means." All religious groups should be provided with equal and standard access for legal registration, he said.

The article signals that policy debate has outgrown academic or church circles and entered the public square, said Carol Hamrin, senior associate at the Global China Center and editor of Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China. "It is quite significant that this official government newspaper would publish this interview, which is very detailed and does touch on sensitive issues," she said.

Brent Fulton, president of China Source in Los Angeles, said he was "extremely surprised" that the article appeared in China Daily. "It tells me that the government is willing to float seriously a major change in religious policy," he said. "It really is on the agenda. They're seriously looking at a change."

Fulton said he was also surprised that China Daily published Liu's estimate of 50 million Chinese attending house churches.

"They're saying the [official] Three-Self Church is not the only game in town," he said. "In fact, there are more people outside of it than in it. To make that admission in print is remarkable."

Acknowledging the number of house church members indicates a level of acceptance that has not been seen before, said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. However, she said a comprehensive law regulating religion, as Liu proposed, is the wrong approach.

"Laws meant to regulate or register religions are abused, even when the drafters don't intend them to be abused," she said. "I don't think it's the way to go. But on the other hand, [China] seems to be emerging from a very suspicious attitude toward religion in general. What I'm most excited about is the attitudinal change, the willingness to accept religion."

Other experts think that legislating religious freedom may be the right step for China.

"In China, people assume you cannot do certain things unless the government explicitly says you can," Hamrin said. Legal recognition of different churches would be the easiest way to introduce freedom of religion, and would also be the best fit with China's culture, she said.

Recently, the growth of unregistered churches and the anxiety of Chinese leaders to maintain social stability throughout some major events—the Olympics, the 60th anniversary of Communist rule, and the visit of President Obama—have led to some crackdowns, Hamrin said.

Prior to Obama's November visit, one 800-member Beijing house church was banned from their meeting place and another well-known church in Shanghai was told to close.

Now it seems the government may be looking for stability through religious freedom. And Liu's proposition—to initiate experimental reform in five or six selected areas around the country—is the same model that brought about change in China's economic, housing, and population control policies, Hamrin said.

This is an important step for China, Hamrin said. "To get positive change without violence requires thinkers like Liu Peng to enter the debate, and it requires action on the part of people trying to exercise their legitimate rights," she said. "The interaction of those two will bring about progress."

Related Elsewhere:

The China Daily article, in which Liu argues that "the Chinese system [of shutting down churches] was a copy from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1950s" and is not truly Chinese, is available on the China Daily website.

Our full coverage page offers articles on China, including our May 2008 cover story on China's changing church and an October 2009 article on the disappearance of Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng.

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