The ruling Chinese Communist Party has intensified government control over religious activities ahead of a key political meeting next month, sparking fears of further human rights violations targeting religious believers and ethnic minority groups.
China's cabinet, the State Council, updated a set of 2005 regulations governing any kind of religious activities by its citizens.
Rights group the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said the new rules had been updated in line with recent draconian legislation on cybersecurity and matters of "national security," which have already been used to target peaceful dissent.
"China’s revised regulations on religious affairs ... intensify controls over religious activity and present a further threat to Tibetan Buddhists," the group said in a statement on its website.
The updated rules intensify punishments for unsanctioned religious activities and step up supervision of certain groups in a bid to "block extremism" and tackle "terrorism," and include a ban on foreign funding for any religious group.
"No organization or individual may use religion to carry out illegal activities such as endangering national security, undermining social order...and other activities that harm national interests," the State Council document said.
The update focuses on "curbing illegality, blocking extremism, resisting infiltration and attacking crime", it said.
It bans the use of religion as "a tool to sabotage national security, social order or China’s education system, or to damage ethnic unity or carry out terrorist activities."
Politically charged crimes
The effect, according to ICT, is to link religious activity directly to politically charged crimes.
"The regulation will give scope for the penalization of almost any peaceful expression of Tibetan identity, acts of non-violent dissent, or criticism of ethnic or religious policies," the group said.
"This regulation will lead to an even more repressive situation — particularly in Tibet — that violates international human rights standards," it said.
A religious believer who gave only a surname, Chen, said the rules are in breach of the country's constitution.
"The constitution protects the right to religious freedom; this is the law," Chen said. "But the Communist Party believes in atheism, so they won't let us believe in anything else."
In February, authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang issued a detailed list of "illegal" religious activities spanning Islam, Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism.
Dilxat Raxit, the Germany-based spokesman for the exile group World Uyghur Congress, said that pretty much any member of the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim, Uyghur ethnic group is now regarded as a potential threat by the government in Xinjiang.
"Sources in Urumqi are telling us that they are going after an ever-increasing number of people at the grass-roots level," Raxit said. "There is also a very obvious armed police presence in all cities, large or small, now."
"All districts are now on combat-level alert, so we have a situation that is halfway to martial law there now," he said.
Pressure grows on religious groups
The new rules on religious activity emerged just days after a statement from leaders of the five officially recognized religions -- Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity -- that they would be working towards greater "integration" with Chinese culture, official media reported.
China's Communist Party, which embraces atheism, has put increasing pressure on faith groups in recent years to join government bodies set up to supervise them,
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards religion as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning last year against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion, particularly Christianity.
And as Xi gears up to consolidate power in his own hands at the 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18, local governments are keen to enforce the new rules to ensure nothing rocks the boat in the run-up to the event.
Authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan slapped a travel ban on the pastor of an unofficial Protestant "house church" earlier this week, detaining him as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong.
Chengdu pastor Wang Yi said border guards had told him that he was detained on the grounds that he presents a "threat to national security," but declined to issue him with any official notification of the ban.
"I was in the police station for a while, before the state security police from [my home district of] Qingyang told me that ... they were carrying out orders," Wang told RFA on Tuesday.
The annual report from the U.S. State Department for 2016 found that China had "physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups".
Beijing denied the contents of the report, which it said "ignores facts".
A recent report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom singled China out alongside North Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar as a "country of particular concern," calling on the U.S. government to exert diplomatic pressure to improve religious freedom there.
The report said the Communist Party’s had subjected North Korean refugees, Protestants, Catholics, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners to imprisonment, torture, and, in some cases, even death.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.