In March, the WeChat Public account called 《宗教法治》(Religious Law) published a proposal by Professor Liu Peng, head of the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences on steps the government can take to solve the problem of house churches in China. We have translated the post and are presenting it in two parts. In this first part Professor Liu spells out why solving the problem is important and what he considers the foundation of a solution.
Recommendations to Solve the Issue of House Churches
I would like to now outline my recommendations for how to solve the issue of house churches, based on church-state relationships abroad, China's practice management of religion, combined with 30 years of experience after the Cultural Revolution.
I. Guiding Ideology
1. The Crux of the Matter: Recognize Legal Status
The existence of house churches is a reality, whether or not the government acknowledges it. The question of the legality of house churches is the main sticking point between the house churches and the government. Solve this central issue and all the rest will follow. The best policy to solve the core issues of the house churches is to adopt suitable methods that give them recognition. Only by recognizing the house churches can you begin to discuss how to integrate them into the government's system of management. If the house churches are still denied legal status, then management is out of the question.
2. Recognize Reality: The Church Is Privately Run
Recognize that the church actually solves problems according to the faith of the their people. Let’s look simply at locations for religions activities. If there were no house churches and we only depended on the Three-Self Church, there is no way the religious demands of the masses could be met. Currently, there are 500,000 house church locations that are entirely independently operated, yet they are still requesting legal status from the government. If millions of house church Christians were willing to enter the Three-Self Church, the government would simply have no way to provide the number of church buildings necessary to meet their need for religious activities.
3. Religious Law: The Ultimate Solution
The long-term existence of the house church issue has revealed the ineffectiveness of the traditional system of management of religions in China. The ultimate solution is to rely on the rule of law. Legislation governing religions would allow for the rule of law instead of the rule of man. Other solutions that have been put forward focus on preserving the departments that manage religion, which are based on the rule of man. These proposals cannot solve the problem.
4. Clear Objectives: Easy to Start With, Difficult in the End
The [previous] plan to solve the house church issue was to curb [church] expansion, limit their reserves, take drastic measures, and then convert the churches from "enemies" to friends. However, a new policy can be implemented step by step with clear objectives. It can be done first as a pilot, then, based on experience gained, the policy can be gradually expanded.
II. Specific Details
Piloting a house church documentation system would lead to a breakthrough in revising house church policies. The specifics of a house church documentation system should include:
1. Civil Administration Documentation
Implement voluntary registration for house churches (including those church groups with five or more people) by which the documentation can be handled by local county level civil administration agencies. These groups would register as community groups. No special treatment would be given in accordance with the higher authority in charge of the community group’s registration. In the future, when the law matures, this will form the documentation basis that will allow applicants to be classified as legal religious representatives.
2. Documentation Information
The following information will be on the documentation:
- the house church name;
- information of the person responsible (name, home address, ID number, position within the church, contact information);
- information regarding property rights of the current meeting location;
- the number of people in the meeting location;
- information of the person in charge of this location (name, home address, ID number, position in the church).
3. The Nature of the Documentation
The documentation process would be procedural and applications would not be judged based on the characteristics of the house church. Civil affairs agencies would use the exact same registration forms to process documentation. They would not judge the applications based on religious identity, qualifications for religious duties, church beliefs and doctrine, scale of church organization, church finances, and other such characteristics. The only criterion as to whether the applicant would be approved is if the applicant can completely fill out the documentation information. As long as the applicant's information is complete, then it would be approved. At the same time civil authorities should clearly indicate on the documentation form that the applicant bears legal responsibility for providing accurate information.
4. Independent Application: Independent Applications
House churches that apply for documentation would not be required to establish affiliation with a Three-Self Church, nor would they be required to go through the investigation, authorization, and approval process of the Religious Affairs Bureau and the Public Security Bureau.
5. Equal Political Treatment
Through documentation house churches would enjoy the same political treatment as the Three-Self Church and other legal religious groups (Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, and Islamic Association of China). Eligible house church members could then enter all levels of the National People's Congress and the People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
6. Civil Subjects
After documentation, house churches could act as civil subjects to establish charitable service organizations. In accordance with the Ministry of Civil Affairs' management methods for "private non-government enterprises" or foundations and the relevant registration laws, house churches would enjoy the same political rights as other non-religious public charitable groups.
7. Management according to the Law
After documentation, the house churches should strictly abide by the laws and regulations of the country. National law enforcement officials should use legal means to handle any illegal conduct. Civil authorities can decide whether to revoke their status based on the specific circumstances of their illegal actions and the amends they've made. At the same time, in the documentation pilot areas civil authorities could suspend these "Regulations on Religious Affairs."
8. Permit Churches to Retain Their Denominational Names
For those churches that have denominational or sectarian backgrounds (e.g., Little Flock Churches, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc.), they should be treated like any other churches and allowed to retain their names following documentation.
9. Local Organizations: Local Management
Documentation of house churches should adhere to the principle of "local organization, local management." Currently, only cases involving house church organizations that are contained within a county administrative region are recognized. Cases that involve church groups or organizations that extend past county lines are rejected (e.g. trans-county, trans-provincial, and national house church groups). National and trans-regional house church organizations could register all branches or local offices under this principle. After filing documentation these national and trans-regional house churches must include their province and county (district and city) in their name, for example "XX Christian Church, Fangcheng County, Henan Province."
10. Hold to Voluntary Participation
Documentation for house churches should be based on the principle of voluntary participation. House churches that have not yet registered should not be forced to, not be discriminated against, and should be allowed to wait and see whether they will be registered. House churches that do not yet register could act as spontaneous groups of faith and continue with their religious activities. But, legally they would not have credentials as civil organizations. They would be prevented from entering the public sphere of society and setting up charitable organizations. As a result, they would not be allowed to engage in charitable services.
Original source: Zhongjiao Fazhi (Religious Law) WeChat Public Account