Legal move sparks fears for Chinese underground church

Warning that new rules could allow authorities to threaten priests to join Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association reporter, Hong Kong 
February 19, 2019

The cathedral of Shangqiu South Church in Henan province before its crosses were removed. The State Administration for Religious Affairs wants all Chinese religious sites to register for legal person status, saying it will improve supervision. (Photo supplied)

Chinese Catholics fear that a state move to ensure legal status for religious venues could destroy the underground church.

The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and the Ministry of Civil Affairs on Feb. 12 jointly announced that personnel of all religious venues should apply for legal person status from April 1.

Paul, a Catholic of the official church, told that such registration might eliminate the underground church.

“The authorities have previously threatened the underground church to register but there was no official notice yet. Now the notice is issued, they have grounds to do that as the legal person system will be used to threaten underground priests to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; otherwise, you will be defined to be illegal. It would be possible to eliminate the underground church,” he said.

Paul is also worried that the system will harm church property as “the legal person is the owner of the religious site; as long as the legal person signs it, the church may be able to sell it.”

SARA and the ministry on Jan. 2 jointly issued a notice on registration for legal person status.

The notice contained 14 articles stating that mosques, churches and other religious sites should apply for registration of legal person status; their financial management should be in line with the state’s regulations on finance, assets and accounting; and they should fulfil the criteria of organized institutions with sound rules and regulations.

The consent of a local recognized religious group should be obtained before registration and then information and documents should be reviewed by the county religious affairs department.

The information should include a copy of the registration of the religious site, an ID card of the legal person candidate and basic information about all responsible personnel, a registered capital verification certificate and a financial audit report by a qualified accountant.

After obtaining legal person status, the site can open a bank account and carry out tax registration.

A template application form on registration of legal persons was released by SARA on Jan. 26. It requests 36 items of information including the name and location of the site, its activities and the numbers and qualification of its members.

Qualification covers support for the Communist Party’s leadership and the socialist system and compliance with the constitution, laws, rules, ordinances and state policies.

SARA noted on its WeChat account that one aim of registration is to prevent the commercialization of religion.

It explained that religious sites not registered as legal persons could not resolve issues relating to ownership of property.

“The boundary between collective property and personal property is difficult to clarify, and it is easy to cause the loss of collective property,” SARA said.

“However, after obtaining legal person status, the sites can solve the difficulties of conducting civil activities, help to clarify the ownership of their property, prevent the loss of legal property and resolve issues of being contracted and being operated.”

SARA also said that legal person registration can help to strengthen government supervision and social supervision as religious sites will implement national financial, asset and accounting systems and government departments can conduct inspections and audits of their finances and assets.

The sites will also be required to file tax returns in accordance with the law, making their finances more open and transparent, it said.

In accordance with law, only those monasteries, temples, mosques and churches which have been registered can apply for legal person status.

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