In early March, China adopted the new Regulations on Religious Affairs, first announced by the government in December 2004. The government claims the new regulations are a step towards religious freedom. However, some Christian leaders have expressed serious concerns, particularly with the issue of church registration.
Last year, the government carried out a survey of unregistered house churches using members of the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches who had contact with unregistered Christians. Results showed there were several thousand unregistered meeting points in Beijing, with over 100,000 members -- far outnumbering the 30,000 Protestants registered with the TSPM.
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it is clearly in the government's interests to stabilize the situation by encouraging these house churches to register.
However, registration has long been a source of tension and debate in China. Unregistered churches oppose registration mainly on two grounds. First, they believe Christ rather than any political body is the head of the Christian church. Second, registered churches are subject to much tighter control over administration, church activities, and the ordination and training of leaders.
Protestant house church members also object to the political theology of the government-controlled Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which oversees the activities of registered Protestant churches.
Finally, the suffering experienced by the church during the Cultural Revolution has left many Christians with a lingering distrust of the government.
The new regulations have already sparked vigorous debate among house church leaders.
In Beijing, some younger house church leaders have taken an optimistic view. They believe legal recognition will give the persecuted minority an opportunity to impact society. For example, they could establish government-approved kindergartens and health clinics.
The new regulations apparently allow churches to register directly with the government rather than with the TSPM. If Beijing Christians succeed in registering while maintaining their independence from the TSPM, other urban house churches may follow their example.
However, this could divide and weaken the house church movement. An older generation of house church leaders -- who see the TSPM as a tool of the Communist Party to control and infiltrate churches -- are less likely to register.
The son of one such leader, who is involved in outreach to intellectuals, told Compass he believes the new regulations will lead to tighter control. "The Party wants to crack down on house church training schools. This had already happened in Anhui even before the new regulations came into effect. And [these regulations] are not set in concrete. From the Party's point of view, they can be still further refined and improved, leading to more control."
House church leaders a thousand miles south of Beijing also expressed their concern. "We are worried about what may happen after March 1. We don't mind too much about registering with the government through the Public Security Bureau, but we do mind interference from the State Administration of Religious Affairs [SARA, formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau] and the TSPM.
"Things have been fairly open in our area for the last two years. We had visits by local officials after neighbors complained about loud music, but it turned out okay. Now we will just have to wait and see."
Legal experts have criticized the vague wording of the regulations. For example, Article 3 guarantees protection of "normal" religious activities. "Normal" is not defined, but from the context it seems to apply only to registered churches.
Article 14 says churches applying for registration must be "rationally distributed." At a conference in the U.S. in late February, Rev. Cao ShengJie of the China Christian Council explained that churches would not be allowed on every street corner, but would be "rationally" located to avoid duplication of facilities.
Article 14 also says a church applying for registration must have "religious personnel or other persons who are qualified under the prescription of the religion concerned." This creates difficulties for house churches, since members of unregistered churches do not qualify for admission to China's 18 government-approved religious seminaries.
A Hong Kong Chinese pastor who has worked with the church on the mainland for many years commented, "On the surface, the Party's new Religious Affairs regulations appear to be more relaxed than previously. Now religion will be managed from the top rather than by suppression and brute force as in the past."
However, "the Party still sees itself as in sole control of the government and of ideology. The new religious policy is more concrete than before. It spells out clearly the punishments for those who break the new regulations.
"We will have to wait and see whether China really wants to liberalize its religious policies," he continued. "To some extent, the new President Hu Jintao is more conservative than Jiang Zemin, so religious policy may even have regressed.
"But as the number of religious believers continues to multiply, the Party will have to make greater concessions on religion in the future."
Copyright 2005 Compass Direct. Compass Direct Flash News is distributed as available to raise awareness of Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Articles may be reprinted by active subscribers only. For subscription information, contact: www.compassdirect.org