With the rapid development of Protestantism in China over the past three decades, millions of Christians are attending churches which exist in a legal "gray area" without official recognition. Beijing scholar Liu Peng has proposed that a documentation system could solve the problem of the legality of house churches and their tense relationship with the government.
At a meeting held between April 22 and 23 on religious affairs attended by all but one of the members of China's highest-level political body, the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, General Secretary Xi Jinping said that religious affairs carry "special importance" to the work of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and called on the authorities to "improve religious work in line with law."
One month prior to Xi's speech, Liu Peng, a former top official at the United Front Work Department -- the top religious affairs policy maker for the Chinese government, proposed a legal compromise to one of the most challenging political conflicts facing the government - the Christian house churches. Liu is now director of the Beijing Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences, a Beijing-based think tank on religion and the rule of law in China.
This issue has its roots in 1954, when pro-government Chinese Protestants set up The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) under the CPC's leadership. But many Christians did not accept the legitimacy of the movement or its doctrine and began worshipping in clandestine, unregistered venues - often the homes of believers, hence the name.
Over the past three decades, house churches have been in a legal "gray area." They have sometimes been tolerated, but have never been officially recognized. This has led to sporadic conflicts between these congregations and officials, which sometimes spill onto the streets. Yet the majority of Christians in China worship at these underground churches and their numbers are growing rapidly.
As a long-time observer of Chinese religion affairs and an ex-official, Liu believes change is needed. He advocates that house churches be integrated into the official religious management system through the immediate registration of these churches, which he argues will eliminate conflicts which stem from their ambiguous legal status.
According to Liu, the religious management model China has been using for decades is the "State control religion" model which follows the example of the Soviet Union. But this old mindset can't meet the diverse spiritual needs of a modern society.
"Many Chinese officials still don't have a clear understanding of religion, and the old concepts lead them to fear, dislike religion and think of it as a troublemaker. And the way they manage religions can't meet the pace of social development," Liu said.
Christian churches in China only have two ways to be "legal": to register as part of the government-recognized TSPM or directly register as an independent religious body with a civil affairs department. But the first option isn't open to house churches due to historical and theological divisions. No house church has ever been able to register as an independent organization.
A Beijing house church called Shouwang attempted to register itself as an independent religious organization in 2006. But the authorities told them the only way they could acquire legal status was to join the TSPM. After this, the government denied them access to their church facilities. When Shouwang church members protested in the streets, some were arrested for disturbing public order.
Liu suggested a new approach in which house churches file voluntary documentation with a local civil affairs authority, which would then give them some legal status. Liu suggests it should start from a pilot program at a certain number of representative cities. Experience gained in the pilot areas could then gradually be used in other areas.
"This would peacefully bring house churches into the government management system and enable the authorities to have true and accurate information about the churches in terms of safeguarding social stability and national security," Liu said.
"Some people worry that if the government recognizes the house churches, it will lead to more trouble. This fear is understandable, but the actual situation is if the house churches are able to obtain legal status, they will particularly cherish their "legal" status, they will become a model of propriety and thus resist all desire to use Christian people to engage in political attempts," Liu said.
Once they obtain government recognition, religious people could contribute their energies into social charity services and become a positive force for social stability," Liu added.
A pastor who asked not be named from a house church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province - a hotspot of Christianity - said to the Global Times that the proposal sounds ideal and he might have considered it if it had been implemented three years ago.
A senior official from the TSPM who refused to be named told the Global Times, that SARA is working on revising the Regulations on Religious Affairs, which might be approved later this year.
Adapted from a very important article in the Chinese-government controlled Global Times, August 1, 2016.
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