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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 December, 2004, 12:42 GMT
China rules on religion 'relaxed'
A Chinese woman prays at the government-approved Nantang Catholic Cathedral in Beijing
Chinese Catholics must worship in state-approved churches
China has announced new rules on religious groups which it says will end discrimination on grounds of belief.

The state-run Xinhua news agency says the rules are designed to keep up with "rapid socio-economic development".

This transformation has sparked a flurry of religious activity, which human rights groups have accused the Chinese authorities of repressing.

But analysts say the wording of the new rules suggest no change in policy in what is officially an atheist country.

The "religious affairs provisions" are to come into force on 1 March.

One of the clauses states: "No organisation or individual may force citizens to believe or not to believe in religions.

Religious bodies and believers should abide by the constitution... to safeguard national unity
Clause in new rules

"They are not allowed to discriminate against citizens who are believers or non-believers."

Social change unleashed by economic reforms in China has led to a spiritual revival - much of it outside the government's control.

According to human rights advocates, many religious groups continue to be harshly repressed - from the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to underground Catholic and Protestant churches.

Wording

The BBC's Francis Markus in Shanghai says that while the official reports say the new rules will protect the people's legitimate religious rights, the word "legitimate" makes clear that there will be no basic relaxation of policy.

The new provisions also say that "religious bodies, activities and believers should abide by the constitution, laws and regulations to safeguard national unity, racial harmony and social stability".

Falun Gong members
Falun Gong has been branded an 'evil cult' by China

Some scholars have welcomed the fact that officials who abuse their powers in dealing with religious groups could face prosecution under the new rules.

But our correspondent adds that many critics are likely to dismiss this move as window dressing at best, or at worst as an attempt to actually tighten state control.

The new rules do not affect the religious activities of foreign nationals, who are subjected to a different set of regulations.

The US government has accused the Chinese authorities of harassing believers who do not belong to state-sanctioned organisations.

Beijing regards Falun Gong as an "evil cult", but denies that the ban on the movement is a human rights issue.

Chinese Roman Catholics are allowed to worship only in officially sanctioned groups with no ties to the Vatican.

However, millions are believed to attend unofficial churches, some of which are tolerated more than others.



SEE ALSO:
HK probes Falun Gong 'hacking'
23 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Falun Gong sues China minister
28 Jan 04 |  Europe
Chinese Catholics 'detained'
27 Oct 03 |  Asia-Pacific
China's Catholics: Far from Rome
24 Dec 03 |  Asia-Pacific


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