Since 1954 the Bureau of Religious Affairs has been responsible for protecting freedom of religious belief. Although the bureau has been instrumental in helping religious bodies restore properties lost or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), it has also monitored so-called ethnic, politically suspect, or unregistered religious groups whose activities are perceived to be at odds with the maintenance of national unity.
Established in 1954, the Chinese national government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs protects freedom of religious belief and fosters the rule of law and patriotism by linking legitimate religious activities with the maintenance of state order, national unity, and socialist development. Administered by the State Council, the bureau’s tasks are to register venues (such as monasteries and churches) for “normal religious activities,” to ensure that religious organizations are not subject to any foreign domination, and to protect freedom of religious belief.
Article 36 of the 1982 Chinese constitution defines “normal religious activities” as activities that do not “disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the state.” This definition reflects the post-1976 shift away from the fiercely antireligious stance of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976), but it also echoes Chinese state policies toward religion established as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).
The People’s Republic of China claims that the bureau fosters the rule of law and patriotism by linking legitimate religious activities with the maintenance of state order, national unity, and socialist development. The bureau has been instrumental in helping religious bodies reclaim and restore properties lost or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). It also has tended to scrutinize some religious groups and activities more than others, especially so-called ethnic religions (Buddhism in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Islam in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), small unregistered bodies (charismatic Protestant Christian house churches), “superstitions” (mixin) such as fortune-telling and faith healing, and politically suspect groups (Falun Gong/Falun Dafa). Recently the bureau has gone beyond regulation to assert the right of the Chinese state to adjudicate the status of anyone claiming to be a reincarnated Buddhist figure, such as the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and has proclaimed that no one born outside of China’s borders will be so recognized.
Bureau of Religious Affairs Upholds the Constitution
The Constitution of the PRC represents a formal articulation of Party policy. As Peng Zhen, then Vice-Chair of the Committee to Revise the Constitution, pointed out in 1980, “The party leads the people in enacting the law and leads the people in observing the law.” This edict remains a bulwark of the Party’s approach to law making. During the post-Mao period, policies of limited tolerance for religion were reflected in the provisions of Article 36 of the 1982 Constitution.
? Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.
? No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion: nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe it, or do not believe in any religion.
? The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.
? Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
Source: Overymyer, D. L.. (Ed.). (2003). Religion in China today. In The China Quarterly Special Issues New Series, No. 3. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 18–19.
Gladney, D. C. (1994). Salman Rushdie in China: Religion, ethnicity, and state definition in the People’s Republic. In C. F. Keyes, L. Kendall, & H. Hardacre (Eds.), Asian visions of authority: Religion and the modern states of East and Southeast Asia (pp. 225–278). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Macartney, J. (2007, August 4). China tells living Buddhas to obtain permission before they reincarnate. Times of London, p. 36.
MacInnis, D. E. (1989). Religion in China today: Policy and practice. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Yu, Anthony C. (2005). State and religion in China: Historical and textual perspectives. Chicago: Open Court.
Source: Richey, Jeffrey L. (2009). Bureau of Religious Affairs. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 245–246. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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