The separation of Church and State in America has always been a hot button issue by believers and non-believers alike. But never in my wildest imagination, would I ever think that China would try to adopt its own version of the separation of Church and State. The ruling communist party has issued new rules for overseeing the various religious faiths that make up China’s faithful.
For the first time, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs is managing relations with those with religious faith and they are enforcing new rules with due diligence. Party members are now officially banned from following a faith. One of the new rules stipulate that religion must be separated from the Chinese state.
It’s a well-known fact for the Chinese that in America there is a separation of Church and State. The wall of separation, however, does not prevent someone in government from having or practicing their religion. But, under the law, the faithful in America cannot use their government office to impose their religious views as government policy.
Here in China the communist party is taking their separation of Church and State to an utter extreme by banning all government officials from having religious faith.
China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs only manages China's five recognized religions — Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism. Those who practice other faiths are viewed as cult followers by the Chinese government.
There has been a growing popularity of all religions in China, particularly Christianity, Buddhism and Daoism this interest has been growing over the past decade. China’s government officials estimate that the number of Christians in China has risen as high as 100 million.
In a previous column I mentioned how the Communist Party has instated its most severe crackdown on Christianity and Islam. Authorities in Zhejiang province have removed more than 1,200 crosses since the end of 2013 and demolished dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches. In recent clashes in Zhejiang dozens of faithful have reportedly been injured trying to protect the crosses on their churches.
Muslims have also filed complaints with the State Administration for Religious Affairs office. They have claimed that Communist party authorities have outlawed cultural and religious markers including burqas and even large beards. Beijing has maintained it is targeting a minority of Muslim separatists responsible for a recent wave of deadly bombings and stabbings in Western China.
The Vatican is also trying to open up a dialog with the Xi Jinping administration. The Vatican’s goal is to end China's practice of appointing bishops in the party-run version of the Catholic Church and those appointed Bishops by the Chinese authority are not recognized by the Vatican.
In a 2007 survey conducted by Purdue University almost 85 percent of party members followed some religious or magic beliefs and practices. It remains to be seen how the Communist Party will tackle such problems and how these new rules will effect China’s freedom of religion or lack thereof.
The so called separation of Church and State clause in China should respect and protect a citizen's right to believe in religion or not believe in religion. The communist party is forcing government officials to set aside their beliefs under the fear of government retaliation. This is quite the opposite of what is meant by separation of Church and State in America.
Here in China when westerners ask me what my religious beliefs are - I jokingly tell them I’m a ‘recovering Catholic.’ I run into Catholics in Suzhou quite often and I discovered that there is a large Catholic population here.
There are approximately 12 million Catholics in China but I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for quite some-time. I may not be a religious person but I do respect a person’s right to have a religious faith and practice their beliefs freely.
I like to tell my students - when it comes to the reality of life there are only two opposing views. One view is - there are no miracles in life and the other view is - life is a miracle. It’s within these two opposing views that I have chosen to live my life.
We are the hands of god - one hand is used to build a better life for ourselves and the other hand is used to build a better life for others. I do not seek out mere religious platitudes from others nor do I want to be understood by words alone. I believe it is best to teach by example and that is what I try to do as a teacher.
I never get caught up in the religious controversies here nor do I bring them up in my Cultural Diversity classes. I may not be a religious person but I do think of myself as being spiritual by nature.
I like to tell others - true spirituality is the torch that lights the way not religious principles that are imposed or mandated on others. It is lived and expressed freely in ones character for others to emulate and embrace.
On the other hand, it remains to be seen how the Communist Party in China will tackle their government made problems and how these new anti-religious rules will play-out or work in practice.
It has been said, ‘the devil is in the details’ and I suppose China in the long run will have to work-out or overcome their own demons. When I read about such issues as religious freedom here in China or the lack thereof - I’m always reminded by how great America is and how our freedoms in America are vital for our overall greatness. China on the other hand has a long way to go and much to overcome in aspiring for such greatness.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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