March 1, 2006
Religion in China still restricted, rights group says
By Lindsay Beck
BEIJING -- Two Tibetan Buddhists jailed for "splittism" have had their sentences reduced, but a rights group said on Wednesday that one year after China introduced new regulations on religious rights, freedom to worship remains restricted.
The rules that took effect in March 2005 enshrine religious belief as a basic right of all citizens, but China still forbids worship outside designated religious organizations, fearing the growth of groups that could challenge Communist Party rule.
"Local officials continue to repress religious activities that they determine to be outside the scope of the state-controlled religious system," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The 2005 regulations were deliberately vague, it added.
"There is nothing accidental about the vagueness -- it gives officials the room they need to legitimize closing mosques, raiding religious meetings, 're-educating' religious leaders and censoring publications," the watchdog said.
Catholics who worship outside the state-backed Catholic Patriotic Association, Muslim Uighurs and Tibetan Buddhists are among those that risk punishment for practicing their religions.
Uighurs and Tibetans face the added problem of their religious beliefs being linked to movements for separatism or greater autonomy for the far-western border regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
In Tibet, which Communist troops invaded in 1950, Jigme Tenzin had one year taken off his 19-year sentence imposed in 2000 for "splittism" -- the crime of advocating independence -- said the Dui Hua Foundation, which works to secure releases for political prisoners.
His wife, Nyima Choedron, was granted sentence reductions totaling 2- years off her 10-year sentence. The two ran an orphanage in the Tibet capital Lhasa before being detained in 1999 following an anti-Chinese protest.
Beijing has also been seen as particularly harsh in Xinjiang, where rights groups say the government is using support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism to legitimize a crackdown on Muslim Uighur activists.
China, which says it faces a terrorist threat in the border region that contains 30 percent of its oil reserves, on Tuesday ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, giving it another tool to fight unrest.
The government has denied accusations it suppresses Islam in Xinjiang, saying it only wants to stop separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.
China's Catholics are also caught between Beijing and the Vatican, with those who pledge loyalty to the Pope forced to practice underground.
While China and the Vatican have been engaged in an informal dialogue aimed at resuming diplomatic ties severed in 1951, underground priests continue to be detained.
Protestant house churches are also a target.
In November, a Chinese court sentenced a Protestant minister, his wife and her brother to prison terms of up to three years for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian publications.
Such printings require approval from the State Bureau of Religious Affairs and Bibles cannot be bought openly at bookshops.