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CHINA: Will fashion for Confucius retard religious freedom?

After trying for decades to destroy Confucianism, the Communist party-state has now "endorsed" Confucian ideas and drawn on them in political slogans, Forum 18 News Service notes. It is also trying to promote a positive image of China through Confucius Institutes in foreign universities. But the selective adoption of Confucian ideas – for example to bolster nationalism - may delay genuine religious freedom for all. This use of Confucianism as a political instrument will have negative effects on the freedom of followers of "new" religions, like Christianity, and of religions identified with political separatism, such as Uighur Islam and Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese state endorsement and control has already produced a distortion of some religious communities' core beliefs and followers of Confucianism face the same threat. The state's priorities remain upholding its political position and ensuring societal quiescence, so it is wise to be cautious in evaluating Confucianism's apparent comeback.

CHINA: China's Catholics, the Holy See and religious freedom

The relationship between China's government and the Holy See has greatly improved, Forum 18 News Service notes. But contentious issues – such as government control of the selection of "patriotic" Chinese bishops and local officials cracking down on the "underground" church – remain. Some of this stems from conflicts between "patriotic" and "underground" Catholics. The current diplomatic situation may also reflect lack of consensus in the Chinese government on the desirability of a normalised relationship with the Vatican. The regular interactions between the Vatican and China can have a positive impact on Chinese political leaders' perceptions. Also, significant progress has already been made in uniting the Catholic Church in China. But, even if normal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government resume, there may not be any significant short to medium term practical religious freedom improvements. This is because, for Catholics and other religious believers, the major challenge to their religious freedom is the state's wish to control China's religious communities.

CHINA: "Religious Communists" and religious freedom

Numbers of religious believers in China are, recent surveys indicate, much greater than previously thought, and a growing percentage of these believers are also Communist Party members, Forum 18 News Service notes. Many Chinese citizens Forum 18 has spoken to – including "religious Communists" - see Party membership just as a matter of gaining material advantages, and religious belief as a "private" matter. This "privatisation" is encouraged by the state's attempts to stop religious communities becoming a force that can challenge the party-state. Yet freedom to believe is only one part of religious freedom; the freedom to practice religion is also vital. "Privatised" religious belief, operating within state-prescribed legal and administrative boundaries, is highly unlikely to produce the two things the state ostensibly most wants from religious communities - contributions to social welfare reforms and social progress. If China had true religious freedom, religious communities would be able to organise themselves independently, and more able to help with social welfare - and China would definitely be on the path to democracy.

UZBEKISTAN: State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.

CHINA: State-imposed religious monopolies deny China's religious reality

China officially recognises only five religions - Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity – which are formally represented by seven national state-controlled organisations. However, the reality of Chinese religious life is far more diverse than the state-imposed religious monopolies, with their artificial barriers to other religious communities – including those pre-dating Communist rule, Forum 18 News Service notes. Even within the state-recognised religions there is no absolute doctrinal and organisational unity. Yet the state insists on the illusion that all Chinese religious believers are represented by the existing state-controlled national religious organisations. This denial of reality creates problems by preventing improvements in relations between the state and religious believers. But it is unlikely that policy will change unless those outside the official system encourage the state – for example in preparations for the 2008 Olympics - to recognise Chinese reality.

CHINA: Would a religion law help promote religious freedom?

Some both inside the country and abroad argue that a national religion law would help end China's arbitrary treatment of religious believers and restrictions on their rights by allowing them to appeal to an objective law. But the authorities avoided adopting a religion law and instead passed updated religion regulations in late 2004, though the question of whether a law should be adopted remains live. While the current regulations are contradictory and are implemented arbitrarily – some unregistered places of worship face severe crackdowns while others are untouched – Forum 18 News Service concludes that without an independent judiciary capable of enforcing a law objectively and while existing state laws are interpreted arbitrarily, any religion law would be unlikely to end state interference in religious life and allow religious believers to defend their rights.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Notices show religious activity restrictions

Four official notices on display in a mosque in China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region starkly reveal the impact on religious freedom of tensions in the region. The documents, seen by Forum 18 News Service and translated here, are displayed in a context of great tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese migrants, and state attempts to control and repress religious activity. Over time, this has radicalised the demands of some Uighur Muslims Forum 18 has spoken to. Islam in Xinjiang, with some exceptions, has been of a moderate variety. Many women go unveiled or just wearing a loose head-scarf, in contrast to the head-to-foot coverage common in nearby Afghanistan. Sufism is popular, as is folk Islam with worship of saints at shrines, which is quite alien to "fundamentalist" Islamic movements such as Wahhabism. China, by its repression of the Islam traditional to the region, is in danger of encouraging radical Islam in the very people it wishes to win over.

CHINA: The Economics of Religious Freedom

Economics has a large effect on China's religious freedom, Forum 18 News Service notes. Factors such as the need of religious communities for non-state income, significant regional wealth disparities, conflicts over economic interests, and artificially-induced dependence on the state income all provide the state with alternative ways of exercising control over religious communities. Examples where economics has a noticeable effect on religious freedom include, to Forum 18's knowledge, the Buddhist Shaolin Temple's business enterprises, clashes between Buddhist temple personnel and the tourism industry, the demolition of a Protestant church in Zhejiang Province, the expropriation of Catholic properties in Xian and Tianjin for commercial development, the dependence of senior state-approved religious leaders on the state for personal income, and competition between and amongst registered and unregistered religious groups. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of economic clashes is the state, which can use both control of income and also favouritism in economic conflicts to restrict religious freedom.

CHINA: Isolated Xinjiang religious minorities

Three strands of Christianity are officially recognised in China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Forum 18 News Service notes: the Three Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Patriotic Catholic Association, and two state-registered Orthodox communities. The authorities in Xinjiang appear to be eager to isolate these communities, along with Xinjiang's Buddhists, from links with their fellow believers in other countries. Missionary activity that the authorities become aware of, especially by foreign missionaries, is swiftly halted. Orthodox believers have been advised by the authorities not to communicate with foreigners, Forum 18 has been told. No Orthodox priests are permitted to work in Xinjiang, and it does not appear likely that this will change soon, or that Orthodox men from Xinjiang will be permitted to study at a seminary abroad.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Strict control of China's Uighur Muslims continues

In China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, control over Islam continues to be much stricter than over other religions, Forum 18 News Service has found. However, the authorities' control over mosques used by Dungans – a Chinese Muslim people - is less strict than over mosques used by Uighurs. Many Uighurs are Muslims, and their religiosity is often closely connected with separatism. Pressure – for example on the texts of Friday sermons, and attempts to force schoolchildren and state employees such as teachers to abjure Islam – is applied more strictly in the north of the region. There is also a ban in Xinjiang on the private Islamic religious education of children. In response, Forum 18 has noted that Uighur parents often take their children to other parts of China, where they can study freely at a medresseh. Islamic movements such as Sufism and Wahhabism are repressed, and the authorities are attempting to assimilate Uighurs through economic inducements. This policy, Forum 18 has found, has made some impact amongst Uighur Muslims.

CHINA: Intellectuals and religious freedom

In China, scholarship and the views of intellectuals are highly valued. There is tremendous interest amongst Chinese intellectuals, both scholars and officials, in religions and religious communities. Prominent intellectuals have defended religious and spiritual communities against government repression, through both internal reports and widely disseminated publications. These include, Forum 18 News Service has found, State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) officials in regular contact with scholars in Chinese universities and research institutions. Yet there is much frustration amongst scholars with their inability, due to the state's sensitivity, to conduct research on religion and religious communities in contemporary China. The role of intellectuals – whether or not they belong to a religious community - in advancing religious freedom cannot be ignored in Chinese society, Forum 18 notes. Without open and frank scholarly discussions on the topic of religion and its effects on contemporary China, genuine religious freedom faces another obstacle.

CHINA: Religious books' tortuous route to the shelves

Perhaps surprisingly, China's book lovers have ready access in the many bookshops in the country's cities to publications about religion. While very little – if any - tackles any connection between religion and contemporary Chinese society and polity, various publications discuss the history, doctrine and practices of the five approved faiths - Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism - Forum 18 News Service has found. While state censorship persists, books promoting a particular faith and offering adherents texts to help their religious practice are difficult to find in general bookshops – though some innovative publishers have been able to get round official controls. Instead, religious believers have to seek out bookshops of the five state-approved faiths, whose own publications cannot be sold in general bookshops as they lack official publication data. Private bookshops – such as those run by individual Protestants – can only stock devotional material that has slipped through the official net.