A few weeks back, officials in China released an official but curiously defensive white paper asserting that the country supports religious freedom. The statement followed a wave of criticism from human rights groups regarding China's treatment of its Muslim minority.
In today's Seeker Daily report, we ask the conspicuous question: How exactly does religion work these days in China, an ostensibly communist nation with increasingly capitalist tendencies and a history of banning religious groups altogether?
As you might expect, it gets complicated. In the middle of the 20th century, religion was completely banned in China by communist party leader Mao Zedong, a notorious opponent of half-measures. But the ban was lifted after Mao's death in 1976, and six years later lawmakers amended China's constitution to protect freedom of religious belief.
However, the law only recognizes five "patriotic religious associations" -- Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism -- and does not guarantee citizens the right to practice or worship. As a practical matter, religious organizations in China have historically faced official discrimination and religious prosecution.
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For a good portion of the Chinese population, it's not a problem -- according to the Chinese government, anyway. Government-issued statistics suggest that most Chinese citizens aren't religious at all. The Chinese government itself is, of course, officially atheist.
But according to other sources, 85 percent of Chinese people hold some religious beliefs or actively practice a particular faith.
In fact, a 2010 Pew Research study estimated that China's fast-growing Christian population to be around 65 million. Chinese government officials are particularly wary of Christian groups, who they perceive to be influenced by Western values. As such, the state has increased harassment in recent years, jailing pastors and removing crosses from more than 1,200 churches in the name of maintaining "peace and beauty."
Chinese officials have also gone after Muslim communities, putting schools under surveillance, regulating services and shutting down mosques.
It's clear that, despite what its constitution says, China still views organized religion as a threat to the state -- and reacts accordingly.
-- Glenn McDonald
Al Jazeera: China must uphold religious freedom in new year
New York Times: China Sentences Uighur Scholar to Life
The Guardian: China's crusade to remove crosses from churches 'is for safety concerns'
BBC: Why many Christians in China have turned to underground churches