New national rules requiring clergy to embrace the leadership of the Communist Party and China’s socialist system are expected to compound limits on religious freedom in the country, according to analysts.
The new rules – Measures for the Administration of Religious Personnel – were published by the State Administration for Religious Affairs early this month and will go into effect in May.
While the measures underlined many of the controls already in place under existing supervisory guidelines, their packaging as a national regulation gave them greater political force, one observer said.
Since 2015, President Xi Jinping has sought to bring religions such as Islam and Christianity under the party’s control through a process of “Sinicisation”, and stressed that religious adherents must reject foreign influence.
Religious leaders, clergy and religious teachers must now actively promote the Sinicisation policy to bring religions under party control and in line with Chinese culture.
The rules stipulate that they must safeguard national security and ethnic unity.
Under the measures, clergy cannot accept overseas appointments or engage in religious activities that would endanger China’s national security. They must comply with a detailed registration process and can only serve one congregation at any one time.
The new rules also state that Catholic bishops must be approved and ordained by the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China.
But this will not affect the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement giving the Pope a final say over bishop candidates in China, according to Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a Catholic affairs specialist at Hong Kong Shue Yan University.
“All bishop appointments must receive final approval from the Pope before consecration can happen,” Lam said.
Carsten Vala, a political scientist at Loyola University Maryland specialising in state-church relations in China, said codifying the internal guidelines as national regulations would give them greater legitimacy and power.
“[Another] political rationale is to further restrict religious activities and religious leaders,” Vala said.
The regulations also stress that members of the clergy must be paid through open and legitimate channels and must obtain official approval before they can train overseas.
It follows the trial of Protestant house church pastor Hao Zhiwei from Erzhou in Hubei province, over her handling of contributions from church members.
Hao is awaiting a verdict, and a decision in her case could set a legal precedent for others involving house church leaders, who usually use their private bank accounts to manage contributions.
“This has led to state accusations that house church clergy are defrauding the followers ... even though the state has left no other means for such congregations to manage finances when the house church congregations reject registration under the Three-Self authority,” Vala said.
The party-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council oversee Protestant churches in China but many house churches refuse to register, citing differences over theology and separation from the state.
Yang Fenggang, a professor of religion in China at Purdue University in Indiana, said that the new rules would add to the administrative burden of religious affairs officials, making it tougher for them to enforce rules on informal religious activities.
“Whenever the regulation defines what is allowed and what is not, it sets the boundaries, but the party-state approved clergy may evade and cross the boundaries in creative ways,” Yang said.