China looks set to further tighten the regulation of public religious worship in a bid to prevent "hostile foreign forces" from infiltrating the country, RFA has learned.
The State Administration of Religious Affairs began consultations this week on rules relating to foreigners who practice their religions on Chinese soil.
Existing regulations from 1991 already bar Chinese citizens from attending temporary religious gatherings organized by foreign religious groups, while foreign religious organizations are banned from any venue not previously authorized for religious purposes.
Now, the government is asking for input on a new set of administrative guidelines to "protect the public interest," according to a notice posted on the Administration's official website on Monday.
Foreigners are currently also barred from preaching or teaching, other than at the invitation of state-backed institutions, nor must they mentor or train Chinese religious staff and believers.
"They may not produce and sell religious books, religious audio-visual products, religious electronic publications, and other religious supplies; they may not disseminate religious propaganda materials and conduct other forms of missionary activities," the existing regulations state.
The new rules target "collective religious activities" of more than 50 people that are organized and attended by foreigners, in particular, at locations that have only been temporarily approved for religious activity for a year at a time.
Foreign nationals attending such gatherings will need to provide the government with personal details including passport number and place of residence in China before attending, the draft rules say.
Hsin-hsin Ko, who directs the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong's Catholic diocese, said the authorities had previously focused on ensuring that young people under the age of 18 were unable to attend religious ceremonies or teachings.
Now, the authorities have moved their focus to large gatherings run by foreign organizations in China that are initially set up to serve the expat community, but which are increasingly attended by Chinese nationals.
"This question of participation is very problematic ... this is about freedom of assembly," Ko told RFA. "These rules will apply whether you are Chinese or a foreign national, and they completely violate religious freedom."
Beijing-based Protestant house church elder Xu Yonghai said the government is actually signaling that it now intends to fully implement existing rules, rather than bringing in new restrictions.
"They are bringing out new guidelines to give a reason why they are stepping up the suppression [of religious activities]," Xu said. "I think this indicates that controls are going to get much tighter, including for foreigners spreading the gospel in China."
"Things will get more difficult; some of our brothers and sisters from South Korea have already been affected, after coming to China and working very hard to set up churches," he said.
An employee who answered the phone at the State Administration of Religious Affairs' leadership group declined to comment, saying they didn't know about the matter.
An employee who answered the phone at the Administration's press office referred enquiries to the political and legal affairs department.
However, calls to to the political and legal affairs department rang unanswered during office hours.
China is home to an estimated 68 million Protestants, of whom 23 million worship in state-affiliated churches, and some nine million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are in state-sponsored organizations.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight control over any form of religious practice among its citizens.
The administration of President Xi Jinping regards Christianity as a dangerous foreign import, with officials warning against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion.
Church members on trial
The call for consultations came as authorities in the southwestern province of Guizhou found a Protestant pastor guilty of "intentionally disclosing state secrets" at his trial on Apr. 26.
Former Huoshi Church pastor Su Tianfu stood trial at a district court in Nanming district in Guizhou's provincial capital, Guiyang, behind closed doors.
Su said he hadn't intentionally leaked state secrets in a post to the popular social media app WeChat.
“I did not intentionally leak state secrets ... I won't deny what I did, but it’s up to the lawyers to decide whether my actions were illegal or not," Su wrote.
And in Chuxiong, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, seven Protestant Christians stood trial on Apr. 27 amid an ongoing crackdown on what the authorities term an "evil cult."
The defendants stood accused of being part of a controversial house church group called the Three Grades of Servants, currently the target of a major crackdown by Yunnan authorities.
Some 200 Christians have been detained in the province and falsely accused of being members, according to the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid.
Reported by Yeung Mok for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.