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Why are Chinese Christians so concerned about new religious affairs regulations?

The only light shining along a dark hallway in a commercial building undergoing renovation in northern Guangzhou belongs to the Christian Guangfu Church.

But repeated raids over the past year have left the grass-roots church in Yuantianxia village with little else. Its congregation – mostly migrant workers – has a new keyboard, a guitar and a few dozen plastic stools.

At least three of the 10 “house churches” in Yuantianxia have been shut down or forced to move since May last year, according to Guangfu’s pastor, Ma Ke, who is petitioning the authorities over the treatment of his church. A third-generation Christian from rural Anhui province, he’s been detained more than 20 times for evangelism since 1994.

“I grew up in an environment watching the authorities removing our cow, donkey, chicken and wheat to intimidate my preacher father and brother,” Ma, 42, told the South China Morning Post.

A few days ago a member of his church, Li Hongmin, went on trial after being caught printing about 110,000 copies of gospel material. Li’s family said they were told to expect a verdict within three months.

Ma, who was prevented from attending the trial and prayed outside the courtroom instead, said he expected worse was yet to come.

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Leaders of China’s Protestant house churches – those operating independently of state-sanctioned religious organisations – called last month on tens of millions of Christians across the mainland to pray and fast for three days as the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office mulled the introduction of a tougher version of the Regulations on Religious Affairs. A public consultation exercise on draft amendments that have been fiercely criticised at home and abroad concluded this month.

In the past two years, a campaign in Zhejiang has seen crosses removed from the roofs of churches across the province. More recently there’s been a massive crackdown on human rights lawyers and NGOs. The drafting of tougher regulations has prompted concerns that house churches could be the next target.

Protestant leaders fear religious persecution would escalate under the tougher regulations, with some going as far as describing it as “a second Cultural Revolution”.

“This will completely wipe out any prospect of a house church ever being recognised as a legitimate religious body,” said Pastor Bob Fu, the founder of Texas-based China Aid.

Fu said the existing regulations were ambiguous enough to leave grey areas in which house churches had managed to blossom over the years. However, the new draft would require religious groups to register and obtain approval from both government-sanctioned religious bodies and religious affairs authorities in order to operate legally.

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Australian National University academic Dr Thomas Dubois, who has compared the existing regulations, promulgated in 2005, and this year’s draft, said the newer version spelled out procedural details and legal liabilities, including the fines that could be faced by the organisers of unauthorised religious events, but did not “give the authorities any new powers to repress religion”.

“The [Communist] party already has the legal tools at its disposal to move very harshly against either religion or NGOs,” said Dubois. “The laws themselves show that the government is growing concerned with three areas: religion in education, the spread of religious websites, and the financing of religious sites and activities.”

He said degree of enforcement would be the key question, and that would depend on political campaigns and attitudes signalled by the central government. The government’s focus on localising foreign doctrines and the party’s high-profile call this year for its members to be “unyielding Marxist atheists” seemed to suggest the regime was aiming to reassert control over the cultural sphere, Dubois added.

The new draft would ban unsanctioned religious groups, institutions or venues from organising or hosting religious activities, receiving donations or organising participation in overseas religious activities, including training and conferences. Even state-sanctioned groups would have to report donations of more than 100,000 yuan to county-level governments for approval.

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Landlords providing venues for illegal religious activities could face fines of up to 200,000 yuan, while those organising them could be fined between 100,000 and 300,000 yuan and have all associated income and materials confiscated.

The draft would also ban religious activities or teaching in public schools, including universities.

And it would give enforcement powers to non-religious affairs authorities such as the police, tax and urban management departments and sub-district and county-level governments.

Believers on the mainland are encouraged to join officially approved religious bodies, and Communist Party members are prohibited from following any religion. Muslim, Buddhist and Christian groups that refuse to pledge loyalty to an atheist government and operate outside government control are occasionally raided and shut down.

The intensity of religious persecution varies from region to region, but appears particularly severe in Guizhou province.

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Two pastors from Guiyang Living Stones Church, in the provincial capital – Li Guozhi, who has been locked up for nearly a year, and Su Tianfu – are set to stand trial for leaking state secrets and could be jailed for up to seven years. Three other core members of the church were also detained on various charges.

The church was dismantled in December and most of its 500-member congregation dispersed. Pastor Su said they were told they could lose their jobs if they continued to worship in house churches.

After the raids on his house church in Guangzhou, Ma installed two surveillance cameras outside its door.

“If they dare interrupt our meeting again, I’ll mobilise as many Christians as possible to petition to Beijing,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with being a Christian.”

It has been estimated there are at least 60 million Christians in China, with a third of them belonging to state-sanctioned churches.

Dr Fan Yafeng, a legal expert and director of the Beijing-based Holy Mountain Institute, said house church Christians comprised the largest NGO outside party control, and that worried the authorities deeply. He said lawyers, pastors and scholars were writing to challenge the draft amendment, while churches were being called upon to unite as they braced for its impact. Members of house church congregations were also being encouraged to form small core groups and to purchase properties in order to avoid eviction.

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Dr James Leibold, from Australia’s La Trobe University, said the “party-state” did not only fear unorthodox folk practices like Falun Gong but also underground Christian churches and certain Buddhist sects.

“The Chinese Communist Party has long viewed religion and religious practices as an existential threat to its rule,” he said.

Under the revised regulations, even state-sanctioned religious organisations would come under stricter scrutiny, including having to submit accounting ledgers, revenue and expenditure reports, accept inspection, supervision and management, report members to local religious affairs departments and enforce tax regulations.

Imam An Jianlong, of the Nanjing Islamic Association, said he believed the latest draft would uphold and protect legitimate religious affairs while curbing illegality and extremism.

“We are unsure how the law will be implemented so it will take time to observe but I do believe it needs to be refined and updated to meet modern needs,” he said.

A Guangzhou-based Catholic priest who is recognised by the mainland government told the Post that the amendment would not change the way he operated.

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“We can manoeuvre however small the space is … we are praying for the Chinese government and officials every day and for the regulation to not deviate from moral and ethical boundaries or it will end up destroying the people and the nation,” he said.

Despite their concerns, most Chinese Christians say house churches are resilient enough to withstand the revised regulation.

“A liberal government could not necessarily cause Chinese churches to blossom,” one said. “Without being refined by fire how can we love God without hesitation?”