China's ruling Communist Party has stepped up its control over all religions by closing its longstanding State Administration for Religious Affairs agency and handing its functions to the party's United Front Work Department. The department once described by Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a “magic weapon” - now has daily oversight and direct control over the state-run organisations of all five official religions, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The move comes seven weeks after stricter new rules on religion were introduced on 2 February. China’s leadership says the rules protect freedom of religion, but keep a tight rein on religious activities and allow only officially-recognised religious institutions to operate. President Xi Jinping, who recently engineered legislation providing for his own indefinite rule over China, has emphasised the need to guard against foreign infiltration through religion, and aggressively promoted what he terms the “sinicisation” of Christianity, which effectively means ensuring that it does not contravene the dictates of the Communist Party.
The new rules place heavier oversight on discussion of religious matters on social media, on religious gatherings, the financing of religious groups and the construction of religious buildings. Religious education is brought further under the umbrella of the state, with explicit provisions on the establishment and registration of religious colleges.
Rumours continue to abound that a deal could be announced soon between the Vatican and China on the thorniest issue dividing them: control of the bishops who run the Catholic Church in China. Tensions were seen on 16 March when Hong Kong's Justice and Peace Commission and St. Bonaventure Church held a special Way of the Cross Mass, titled “Go with the Chinese Church", that was attended by several hundred people. Yan Yan of the Commission said that, “the experience of Jesus is like what the China Church has been going through over the past few decades". Catholics internationally were urged to pray for those in China who are still in prison, missing and suffering.
PICTURE: Chinese pilgrims are pictured in St Peter's Square Rome ©PA