ANYANG, Henan province -- Measures to prevent minors from taking part in religious activities are spreading in China.
Catholic Church officials in Henan province told the Mainichi Shimbun that authorities issued an order to that effect this year, and similar instructions came out in the predominantly Buddhist autonomous region of Tibet. The administration of President Xi Jinping is strengthening control over every aspect of the society, including expression of ideas and religion, and Beijing is apparently trying to impede religious faith from reaching a wider population.
Banning minors from religious occasions seems to be a reflection of revised government rules on religion issued in February this year that placed stricter controls on religious groups' involvement in education. According to people familiar with the situation, since around April, signboards saying "No minors" started to pop up at Catholic churches in Henan province, and members of local self-governance groups began to monitor minors' entry into masses. Meanwhile, minors in the Tibet Autonomous Region were instructed not to engage in religious acts during summer vacation.
The Global Times, an English-language news outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party's official People's Daily paper, justified the measure in late July, saying, "China's education law separates education from religion, and that is the legal basis for the move."
In June 2016, senior officials of the far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to many Muslims, revealed that they had banned acts of religious faith by minors. It appears that this tough measure intended to control local independence movements has since been implemented in other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is in advanced talks to improve ties with the Vatican. "We are at a good point," Pope Francis was quoted as saying in an interview with Reuters in June. The two sides are trying to resolve a dispute over the appointment of bishops in China, one of the major hurdles to resuming diplomatic relations severed some 70 years ago.
The recent moves in China, however, may prevent Beijing and the Catholic Church from mending ties.
For the Vatican, now facing a series of sex and other scandals involving senior priests and a decrease in followers, China's vast population is a promising source of new believers. The Xi administration is aware of this, and looks to be trying to force the church into a major compromise affecting its religious principles. Henan province appears to be one of the stages for the Chinese move, with the faithful double-bound by the state and their religion.
Henan is said to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Twenty dynasties established their capitals here, a place where countless peoples and cultures converged. The Catholic faith reached this land in the 17th century, and remains popular to this day. With 95 million total residents, Henan has a substantial Catholic population. Multiple research institutes estimate that China has some 10 million Catholics, and about 10 percent of that total is said to be in this province.
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On a Sunday morning in late July, residents were gathering for mass at a church facing a narrow street filled with breakfast smells in the center of the city of Anyang, northern Henan. Beside the gate to the church stood middle-aged and elderly women all clad in the same red polo shirts. Whenever they found children with parents or teenage girls coming in, the women stopped them, saying, "No children inside."
The "janitors" were volunteers from among the church's flock. They were acting on the order of authorities to watch for minors every Sunday. "People from resident groups who are not believers are watching us closely," one of the volunteers confided in a low voice.
Similar volunteers were on watch at another church in the province. Followers testified after mass that they had seen signboards saying "No entry for minors" shortly after the new rule was introduced. "This cannot block the influence of their parents.
According to multiple priests, instructions were issued to churches this past spring to refuse entry to those under 18. An instruction leaked online read, "This issue is an untouchable high-voltage line, and (the instruction) must be thoroughly followed."
All schools launched teaching sessions telling children not to participate in religious activities.
One individual close to a church was consulted by a churchgoing high school girl. "Some people said in today's class that they were opposed to religion. I became very scared because they said going to church will result in punishment and negative impacts on life," the girl was quoted as telling the person.
"No one is considering how deeply scarred children's minds will be by this (new rule)," the individual said angrily. Rumors about the consequences of religious belief abound, including that students of faith will be discriminated against in scholarship selections, triggering widespread concern.
It is not clear why the religious policy in Henan province is particularly harsh. A variety of theories, such as the change of the provincial head in March, are circulating among the locals. In any case, said followers, it is a sensitive issue, and therefore local authorities alone cannot implement the stricter guidance.
All religions in China were persecuted during the 10 years of Cultural Revolution starting in 1966. Based on the experiences of that decade, in 1978 the Communist Party shifted to a policy of reform and openness, and accepting Western values including Catholic teachings to a certain extent.
The Xi administration, however, is turning back the clock, intensifying restrictions on freedom of expression and religion despite its growing confidence as a major world power.
One believer said, "I don't think Western countries can stop China anymore now that it is so strong. But we still want the world to know what's going on here."
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The six-year-old Xi administration is pursuing a "Chinese model" of development. Unlike the western emphasis on human rights and freedoms, in the Xi vision the Communist Party is the guiding force behind every aspect of the country and its society, all to make China strong.
President Xi told an important meeting on religious policies that religion has "special importance" for national unity. Both the Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibet autonomous regions -- predominantly Muslim and Buddhist, respectively -- have separatist movements. And Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province, has diplomatic ties with the Vatican.
Re-establishing ties with the Vatican is directly connected with Xi's long-sought goal of "unifying Taiwan with China." The Holy See is the only European country with diplomatic representation in Taiwan, and most of the 16 other countries that exchange diplomats with Taipei are Christian. Getting the Vatican on-side would be a major step forward for Beijing's "one China" vision.
But Catholic teaching demands of its followers absolute submission to the pope -- a position at loggerheads with the Chinese stance that the Communist Party is the absolute source of guidance. China is worried about the deep Catholic connection with Western values of freedom and human rights. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the same article declares, "Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination."
China and the Holy See severed diplomatic ties in 1951 over the appointment of bishops in China. The Vatican insisted that only the pope can name the senior priests, while the Chinese side responded that this was "an intervention in internal affairs." In 1957, the Chinese government organized its own church system called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and started naming its own bishops. Priests and followers who didn't accept this policy gathered at underground churches, dividing China's Catholics in two.
Since the 1980s, when China launched its reform and open door policy, contacts with the Vatican have resumed and they are now allowed to have a certain level of engagement with Chinese churches. Most bishops in China are named by both the Vatican and the CPCA. It is also not uncommon for local authorities to turn a blind eye to underground churches.
This year, China and the Vatican acknowledged that they are in the final phase of discussions on the appointment of bishops. Holy See officials think that engagement with China can increase its influence on Chinese followers and heal the division of the Catholic population. However, China remains strictly on course with its tough religious policy, and Catholic insiders are worried about that intransigence. Followers the world over are keeping watch for what will be an historic decision by Pope Francis.
(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, Beijing Bureau)