BEIJING – China is facing heightened threats from foreign infiltration via religion and from the spread of extremism, a top official for religious affairs said Tuesday, after strict new rules were passed to manage religious practice in the country.
President Xi Jinping has emphasized the need to guard against foreign infiltration through religion and to prevent the spread of “extremist” ideology, while also being tolerant of traditional faiths that he sees as a salve to social ills.
China’s parliament last week passed updated rules to regulate religion so as to bolster national security, fight extremism and restrict faith practiced outside state approved organizations. The new rules take effect in February.
Wang Zuoan, the head of China’s religious affairs bureau, said the revision was urgently needed because “the foreign use of religion to infiltrate (China) intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas.”
“Issues with religion on the internet are starting to break out … and illegal religious gatherings in some places continue despite bans,” he added, writing in the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Daily.
Wang said that freedom of religious faith is protected by the new rules.
“At the same time, freedom of religious faith is not equal to religious activities taking place without legal restrictions,” he added.
Religion within China needed to be “sinicized,” a term officials use to describe the adjusting of religion to fit Chinese culture as interpreted by the Party.
“These rules will help maintain the sinicization of religion in our country … and keep to the correct path of adapting religion to a socialist society,” he said.
China’s five officially sanctioned religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity — vowed to fight “desinicization” at a forum on the topic held in Beijing last week, according state media.
Wang’s remarks came as news emerged Tuesday that a member of a Muslim minority group had been sentenced to two years in a Chinese prison after forming online discussions groups to teach about Islam.
Huang Shike was arrested in 2016 in Xinjiang province, three months after he formed a discussion group about Muslim worship on the messaging app WeChat, according to the official website China Judgments Online. Huang, 49, taught about the Quran, Islam’s holy book, in another WeChat discussion group. More than 100 people were members of each group, the website said.
The discussion groups “disturbed normal religious activity” and violated laws about using the internet to discuss religion, the website said.