Around 20 lawyers, academics and religious leaders have penned a letter to China's parliament in protest over proposed rules that would intensify a government crackdown on religious activity by the country's citizens.
Earlier this month, the State Council released a draft set of draconian rules setting out measures aimed at eliminating unofficial Christian worship, "separatists" among Tibetans and Muslim Uyghurs.
The rules look set to take effect from Oct. 7, after the public consultation period ends.
They include bans on preaching or running religious events in schools, and on "providing religious services online."
Individuals and groups are also prohibited from "organizing citizens to attend religious training, conferences and activities overseas," according to a copy of the draft rules seen by RFA.
Some of the rules call on government agencies to "take precautions against separatism, terrorism and infiltration by foreign forces."
They also impose restrictions on the acceptance of teaching posts in foreign countries, while a clause forbidding "religious activities in unapproved sites" calls on local governments to extend a nationwide crackdown on house churches.
The last set of revisions to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's "Regulations on Religious Affairs" came in 2006.
Christian rights lawyer Li Guisheng, who contributed to the consultation document, said religious practice should enjoy the protections promised in Article 36 of China's constitution.
Detailed controls coming
"Citizens' right to freedom of religious belief is enshrined in ... the constitution, as is state protection for normal religious activities," Li said.
"But there is room for a hidden meaning in the words 'freedom of religious belief,'" he said, adding that freedom to believe and freedom to practice aren't necessarily the same thing.
"If there is freedom of religious belief, then it follows that there should also be freedom in religious practice," he said.
But there are bigger legal issues with the rules, because China's cabinet, the State Council, should in theory lack the power to limit citizens' constitutional rights, he said.
"The State Council is part of the executive, and has no power to enact legislation," Li said. "Only the NPC can do that, in a plenary session."
A Protestant pastor who gave only his surname Zhou told the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid that the latest version of the regulations sets out the most detailed form of government controls yet.
"The government wants to control everything, even the smallest aspects," Zhou said. "One characteristic of this draft is the empowerment of local government bodies all the way down to grassroots level."
"This revision makes any loosening of religious controls in China much less likely," 'he said, adding: "[Religious life] is becoming impossible."
It quoted pastor Gao Baosheng as saying that the consultation exercise was just for show.
"[This represents] Xi Jinping’s attempt to further manage and suppress religions," Gao said. "The changes in the draft show that the government is imposing more control on major religions."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.