The ruling Chinese Communist Party should have no authority over religious matters in China, and has no moral power to define whether religious beliefs are legitimate or not, according to a conference of religious scholars, lawyers, and activists in the United States.
More than 50 human rights lawyers, unofficial Protestant house church leaders, and scholars issued a statement after an academic conference last week calling on all Chinese citizens to fight for religious freedom in the face of a widening crackdown on religious belief.
"Misunderstanding, violation, discrimination, and persecution abound with regard to religious freedom in legal and social practices of China," participants wrote at the end of an academic conference on at the Purdue University Center for Religion and Chinese Society in Indiana.
The statement hit out at bureaucratic controls on specific religious practices, which are often enforced by party officials based in mosques and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
"The state has no right or moral authority to distinguish between 'legitimate religion' and 'feudal superstition, [or] between 'orthodox religion,' ... 'cult,' or 'heresy,'" said the statement, titled the "Purdue Consensus on Religious Freedom."
"Members of any traditional or emerging religion shall not be subject to government censorship or legal judgement for merely believing, expressing, disseminating, or practicing their religious faith," it said.
Restrictions on religion
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades amid sweeping economic and social change.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
The Purdue statement came shortly after the demolition of a massive Protestant church in the eastern city of Wenzhou amid an ongoing church demolition program.
Analysts say the Wenzhou crackdown has highlighted Beijing's growing uneasiness over burgeoning numbers of Christians in the nominally atheist country.
But a recent U.S. religious freedom report said Chinese authorities routinely restrict the activities of independent Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims, as well as Protestant groups.
And in March, a prominent Uyghur Muslim leader and delegate to China's top political consultative body voiced rare public criticism of religious restrictions in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Ablimit Ahmettohti Damolla Hajim said the government's "misunderstanding" of Islam is preventing Uyghur Muslims from enjoying a "normal religious life."
Uyghurs under the age of 18 are barred from mosques and bombarded with anti-religious propaganda in schools.
'Major setback' in religious freedom
According to the Purdue statement, religious freedom includes "the freedom of family members (adults and children) to adhere to and to express their religious faith [and] the freedom of parents to instruct their children in their religious faith."
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who signed the consensus, said he believes the climate for religious believers in China is getting harsher and harsher.
"I think that it's very obvious that religious freedom has suffered a major setback in the past year," Tang said.
"Especially in the past two months, when the authorities in Wenzhou carried out a major demolition campaign targeting Protestant churches and public crosses, as well as stopping churches from meeting," he said.
"It's not just local level implementation, but right across the board."
He said the move was linked to a tougher line taken by the administration of President Xi Jinping against all forms of potential challenge to party power.
"It has a lot to do with the fact that the authorities are now governing Chinese society with very hard-line policies," Tang said.
"In their ideology, they probably believe that independent religion can't benefit the regime."
Another signatory to the Purdue statement, Beijing-based Protestant pastor Liu Fenggang, said the government uses officially recognized religious organizations as an excuse to attack those who remain outside the government-backed system.
He said the Three-Self Patriotic Association of Protestant Churches is an attempt to hide the government's fundamental mistrust of Christianity.
"The Three-Self Association is a form of window-dressing to make people believe that the government is supportive of religion," Liu said. "In reality, they are just making use of religion."
"All those who seek freedom of religious belief get locked up in jail," he said.
"For Protestants, our faith ... can't have a patina of political conditions overlaid on it," Liu said.
"But if you don't join, they regard you as carrying out illegal activities."
Protestants and Catholics practicing outside of state-controlled churches are typically targeted for harassment and detention by local police and religious affairs officials.
Churches that attract a wide following and set up in their own premises are often forced to leave or give up their buildings, but are also forbidden from organizing open-air gatherings in public, Chinese Christians report.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.