Skip to main content

(New York) - One year after China’s Regulations on Religious Affairs came into force, Chinese citizens’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion remains as subject to arbitrary restrictions as ever, Human Rights Watch said today.

The regulations took effect on March 1, 2005. At the time they came into force, the Chinese government asserted that the national regulations, the first comprehensive set of regulations on religion in China, constituted “a significant step forward in the protection of Chinese citizens’ religious freedoms.”

However, local officials continue to repress religious activities that they determine to be outside the scope of the state-controlled religious system. Their decisions are often made arbitrarily and in a manner inconsistent with the right to freedom of belief or religion. Chinese officials continue to detain and arrest religious believers, close religious sites, and impose restrictions on the movements, contacts, visits, and correspondence of religious personnel.

“Chinese officials claim the new regulations safeguard religious freedom through the rule of law, but the intentional vagueness of the regulations allows for continued repression of disfavored individuals or groups,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “There’s nothing accidental about the vagueness – it gives officials the room they need to legitimize closing mosques, raiding religious meetings, ‘reeducating’ religious leaders, and censoring publications.”

Human Rights Watch said the most significant problem with the regulations is that arbitrariness is implanted in the text. The regulations state that “normal” religious activities are allowed, but then fail to define what the term “normal” means, leaving practitioners unclear about what is allowed and what is banned. The regulations also include other undefined key terms, such as “religious extremism,” “disturbing public order,” and “undermining social stability,” each of which only adds to the ambiguities and the potential arbitrariness of the application of the regulations.

In the year since the regulations went into effect, attempts to rein in unsupervised religious activities concentrated on preventing like-minded believers from working together to propagate their beliefs, to “plant” new religious sites, or to educate their children. Thus, the size and composition of religious meetings, personnel, literature, and religious education for minors all came under attack.

In the past year the authorities have targeted large-scale religious meetings. In Hebei province, home to a large concentration of Catholics, officials sought out priests clandestinely performing masses for large numbers of believers. Bishop Jia Zhiguo was detained for refusing to keep underground Catholic activities discreet.

Chinese officials point to the growth in the numbers of believers, religious sites, and professional clergy, yet fear gatherings that bring together religious leaders from different parts of China in an effort to discourage the sharing of experiences, expanding membership, and training lay and religious leaders. An August raid in Jiangxi province on a training class for Sunday school teachers, at which some 35 high school and university students were present, was just one of many such cases.

Religious literature continued to be as carefully vetted and controlled as religious personnel. Those violating the rule that basic texts could be printed only by accredited printing houses and disseminated only through officially approved channels wound up in detention or in prison. In November 2005, Cai Zhuohua drew a three-year prison term, ostensibly for “illegal business practices,” for attempting to fill unmet demand for religious literature. In Xinjiang, several young people were held for possessing unauthorized religious texts.

Although Chinese government authorities continued to insist both publicly and to U.S. officials that children could receive religious instruction, in Xinjiang, teachers and students were detained and parents of attendees exorbitantly fined after a teacher was caught reading the Koran to 37 students.

While the regulations do not address the issue of what the government calls “cults,” Falungong reported that over 400 of its practitioners are known to have been imprisoned or sent for “reeducation” in the year since the new regulations have been in effect.

“The regulations have not created the space for the free exercise of religion that was promised,” said Adams. “Instead, Chinese citizens who engage in the most basic religious activities can still find themselves arrested, in jail, or under threat.”

The 2005 regulations stated that Chinese citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religious belief. But Human Rights Watch noted that the regulations require that religious organizations and believers must “safeguard unification of the country... and stability of society” and eschew “foreign domination.” Despite stating that religious organizations should be independent and self-governing, the regulations include a lengthy description of what is required of any group of worshipers applying to legally organize and take responsibility for managing its personnel, finances, and activities. This is capped with an equally lengthy list of activities that cannot be undertaken without special permission and with the admonition that “sites for religious activities” must “accept the supervision... by the religious affairs department and report on their income and expenditures.”

“It’s hard to find hope, in the application of the religion regulations, that the Chinese government is prepared to alter its view that ‘you do it our way or not at all,’” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that China continues to allow only five belief systems – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism – to qualify as lawful religions. This is a severe infringement on the right to freedom of religion. Chinese officials are reportedly considering whether to expand the list to include Judaism, the Orthodox Church, the Baha’i Faith, and the Mormon Church. Although a credible report says that a panel has been empowered to consider appropriate policies, reasonable criteria, and a rational bureaucracy, the issue of “new” religions is apparently too contentious to hope for a rapid resolution.

It has also been reported to Human Rights Watch that the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) has taken steps to regulate “folk” religion. This term refers to the veneration of a pantheon of gods and goddesses, some local, and the rituals and beliefs that accompany their worship. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people practice some variant of this.

Human Rights Watch said that international law makes it clear that freedom of belief is not a right to be granted by the state. On the contrary, its practice and exercise is to be protected by the state. A government can in certain circumstances justify setting out reasonable and legitimate limitations on religious activity. In 1998, when China became a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, China committed to not taking regressive measures against the spirit of that treaty, yet Chinese practice and international human rights standards remain far apart.

“Governments should have no role in determining what is an appropriate religion or belief for an individual to hold,” said Adams. “This is a matter of individual conscience.”


Beginning with the 1982 Document 19: The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period, the Chinese leadership, through policy guidelines and a series of regulations, has tried to pursue a dual purpose, reining in religious freedom but eliminating arbitrary implementation of the rules by local-level cadres, a common enough practice in China. Every new religious document or regulation tightened restrictions and increased penalties for believers who dared to assert their rights outside the narrow construct of what the government said was “normal” religious activity.

As a first step, the government declared only five religions legitimate. Step two involved protecting only those religious activities it deemed “normal.” Oversight was accomplished through a country-wide system, requiring that every mosque, temple, church, and monastery register with the government. Unregistered religious sites are illegal – the collective and its individual members subject to a range of administrative and criminal punishments. Registration is by no means risk-free. It brings government control of finances, personnel, publications, activities, evangelical activity, and censorship of selected religious tenets.

Appendix – The State of Religious Freedom for Different Religious Groups

Uighur Muslims

In Xinjiang, where the predominant Muslim group is made up of Turkic-speaking Uighurs, local officials have shut down religious activities on the pretext of contributing to the fight against international terrorism. They have detained Uighurs for possessing “unauthorized” religious texts, refused to authorize repairs to mosques, and closed several mosques, one because the building “was too large.” In keeping with Article 43 of the regulations, which prohibits self-organized overseas “pilgrimages,” local authorities confiscated passports from Uighurs planning to spend Ramadan in Mecca; only state-sponsored Hadj pilgrimages were permitted, and government employees and retired government officials were not allowed to make the journey without special permission.

In July 2005, police searching bags at a bus stop detained three Uighurs for possession of an “unauthorized” copy of an Islamic religious text. They were fined and released within a week. On August 1, police broke into the home of Aminan Momixi, a Uighur woman, while she was teaching the Koran to 37 students, some as young as 7. Initial reports said she was detained and accused of “illegally possessing religious materials and subversive historical information.” No further information is available to Human Rights Watch about her current whereabouts. Some children were not released until their parents paid fines ranging between 7,000 and 10,000 yuan (approximately U.S.$875-1,250), exorbitant amounts for rural-dwelling Uighurs.

Later in the month, state security forces in Xinjiang’s Yili Autonomous Prefecture banned the Sala Sufi branch of Islam and detained 179 followers for allegedly gathering illegally, endangering stability, and interfering with official oversight of religion. Releases followed the payment of fines.

Religious education of minors in Xinjiang remains a contentious issue – as it does in Tibet. As one of several conditions for dropping a U.S. resolution condemning China’s human rights record at the March-April 2005 meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the United States asked that China issue a public statement clarifying that “religious education of minors is consistent with Chinese law and policy.” On March 17, 2005, in response to a reporter’s questions, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao replied that there was no law that prohibited minors from holding a religious belief. He pointed out, however, that religion should not interfere “in school and social public education.” He also said that it was his understanding that religious education from parent to child was allowed. In August 2005, officials in Xinjiang told the visiting U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom delegation that this understanding was in error. Religious education could not begin until a minor had completed nine years of compulsory schooling.

Tibetan Buddhists

Government interference in Tibetan Buddhist religious affairs continued unabated in 2005. Most significantly, an official Chinese publication described the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama as “the leader of Tibetan Buddhism” and claimed that he was “the highest ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism.” This accreditation has never been given to anyone before except the Dalai Lama. In return, the 15-year old Panchen Lama pledged to “live up to the expectations of the Chinese Communist Party and the central government.” The whereabouts of the Tibetan-chosen Panchen Lama remain unknown.

To solidify support for the Panchen Lama chosen by China, officials in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and in autonomous prefectures and counties in Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan provinces subjected monks and nuns to a new round of “patriotic education.” A mandatory examination followed, based on texts devoted to the official Chinese version of Tibetan history, religious politics, legal matters, ethics, and policy on “crushing separatists.” Those who refused to accept that Tibet had always been a part of China or refused to denounce the Dalai Lama and accept the legitimacy of the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama faced expulsion from their monasteries. In July, a monastic official from a leading Lhasa monastery was removed from his post for such clandestine support for the Dalai Lama. Expulsion of monks for the same offense from another leading Lhasa monastery prompted a silent protest by many resident monks. Other reports cite the expulsion of some 40 nuns from a convent in Lhasa on the same grounds.

It has been reported that in Qinghai province Buddhist leaders unable to boost support for Beijing’s religious policies were told by local officials to try harder or face punishment.


During 2005, the Vatican and Beijing engaged in informal dialogue aimed at rapprochement, as evidenced in part by persistent reports that both sides approved the appointment of two new bishops, one in Shanghai and the other in Xi’an. At the same time, so-called underground Catholic priests and bishops, loyal only to the Vatican, came under increasing pressure. Officials, particularly in Hebei province, the center of underground Catholic activity, subjected influential priests and bishops to “reeducation” sessions aimed at forcing them to join the Catholic Patriotic Association and align themselves with the official Chinese Catholic Church. Although there are few available details about the process, the targeted clergy were detained at undisclosed locations for the duration of their sessions.

It is notable that when meetings of Catholic congregants remained small, discreet, and apolitical, officials often turned a blind eye. Reported detentions followed the celebration of masses that attracted large numbers, for public celebration of important Catholic feast days and during pastoral retreats.

One longstanding issue, that of rights to former Catholic Church properties, flared anew in 2005. According to Article 30 of the 2005 regulations, “land legally used by a religious body or a site...” and the “structures and facilities legally owned by such a body or site... are protected by law. It may not be encroach[ed] upon, loot[ed]... [and] confiscate[ed]...” However, a church in Xi’an was forced to buy back its original properties, nationalized in 1982, but sold to a developer in 2003. The case made headlines after unknown assailants in Xi’an severely beat and injured nuns attempting to protect the properties from demolition.


A crackdown on the activities of so-called Christian (Protestant) house churches in Shanxi, Henan, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces began shortly after the regulations went into effect and lasted throughout 2005 and into 2006. Some house churches were refused registration, while other refused to register.

The term “house church” refers to congregations that refused to join with other Protestant denominations, such as Methodists, Anglicans, and Lutherans, in the non-denominational church structure that the Chinese government insisted should accommodate all Protestants. House church members, often referred to as fundamentalists, believe such a church could not accommodate their doctrinal or liturgical traditions. House churches are ostensibly independent, but usually belong to one of several large, hierarchical religious groups.

In 2005, officials concentrated on raiding large-scale meetings bringing together religious personnel from scattered provinces and cities. Many of those present were detained and fined; a few were arrested. Many of the gathering involved teacher and leadership training sessions. Such meetings are viewed with particular hostility by a government and Party whose aim is to control the indoctrination of new generations of “patriotic” religious leaders. Other targeted churches had been engaged in activities to increase membership. One was raided during baptism ceremonies for 60 new believers; another involved a Sunday school teacher training class for high-school and university students. Reports alleged that police officers and religious affairs cadres conducting the raids mistreated congregants, and that those detained also were mistreated by official personnel.

An unusual series of coordinated raids in May 2005 at 100 locales netted some 600 believers in Jilin province in what is believed to have been an attempt at shutting down growing house church influence on an academic community. A few key house church leaders were detained to ensure their attendance at “study sessions” where they would be subjected to attempts to force them to affiliate with the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” the official umbrella organization for Protestants. Most of those detained – one gathering involved some 100 pastors; another drew 50 participants from 20 provinces and cities – were released following payment of fines.

The sentencing of Cai Zhuohua, a house church leader, and his colleagues on November 8, 2005, for “illegal business practices” emphasized the importance Chinese officials place on maintaining control over religious publications. Cai Zhuohua had printed thousands of copies of Christian literature which had attracted the displeasure of state officials. In his defense, Cai maintained he gave away rather than sold the thousands of copies he had printed to fill unmet demand. Printing of religious materials is controlled by the Regulations on Administration of the Printing Industry.

A statement in the 1997 Chinese government’s White Paper—Freedom of Religious Belief in China implies that “there is no registration requirement [for] ‘house services,’ which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading.” If officially implemented, such an assurance could have a positive impact on the exercise of religious freedom by allowing the hosting of “home churches.” However, it has been reported that such meetings, if permitted at all, are limited to no more than 25 family members and their friends who do not meet regularly and do not annoy the neighbors.


Although Falungong spokespeople have emphatically denied that Falungong is a religion, it is a structured belief system incorporating elements of Buddhism and Daoism whose adherents are entitled to the protections guaranteed under Article 18 of the ICCPR.

In October and November 1999, the government organs of the Chinese government defined “heretical cults,” declared that Falungong was indeed one, and clarified how its members could be prosecuted under existing criminal law. According to information received by Duihua, an organization which gathers information on Chinese political prisoners and works for their release, Falungong practitioners continue to be arrested at an alarming rate. Of the more than 2,000 Falungong practitioners believed to be in prison or in “reeducation” through labor camps, more than 400 were detained and sentenced to prison or “reeducation” in the year since the new religious regulations went into effect. Most of the available information has come from Falungong and confirmation has been difficult to obtain. The government has employed other forms of extra-legal detention, such as psychiatric hospitals and “legal education schools” to detain Falungong practitioners.

Existing “cult” laws have also been used to prosecute several Christian religious groups that the government insists are heterodox.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country