New rules on religious affairs in China will not lead to more freedoms and instead could signal a tougher time for underground churches and groups not officially sanctioned, analysts said yesterday.
The regulations, to take effect on March 1, were made public Sunday by official media which said they were to safeguard religious freedom and human rights.
But the main tone of the regulations has not changed -- they still stress the overruling importance of state interests over religious affairs.
"Religious bodies, activities and believers should abide by the Constitution, laws and regulations to safeguard national unity, racial harmony and social stability," a clause says.
Analysts said the rules, which protect only the legal rights of state-sanctioned religious groups, meant non-state-sanctioned ones such as Christian house churches or other religious sects would be worse off.
"It is a two-edged sword," said Chan Kim-kwong, a China expert at the Hong Kong Christian Council. "In terms of implementation, it is now clear what they should supervise, or what they shouldn't bother with."
Under the clearer regulations, there would be less room for maneuver for individual groups not registered with the state -- as in the often ambiguous rules of the past, he said.
"For those which are not registered, Chinese government's dismissal of them in terms of banning or punishment will be stepped up," he said.
"These groups will have even less room for survival. When the grey areas have gone and if you're not registered, you won't be in the game anymore," he said.
China, largely atheist, officially sanctions five religious groups: Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism.
Chinese are allowed to worship only in state-sanctioned churches and temples and authorities regularly crack down on groups outside of the government's control, shutting underground house churches and arresting practitioners.
The new regulations clarify the areas of supervisory responsibility of various government departments and the sorts of religious activities, projects and publications that should come under state control.
Nicolas Becquelin, research director of Human Rights in China, said it indicated a stepping up of the supervision of religions.
"We're still talking about a socialist atheist state with the dominant ideology that religion is a bad thing," he said. "But over the past 20 years the state has moved from trying to stamp out religion to trying to manage it."
He noted that the rules still required religious groups to register with the state -- a de-facto approval process which has barred myriad groups from being recognized as legal religious entities.
"The government is still using registration to enforce political control and there is no way to appeal the process," Becquelin said.