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The Present Conditions of Religion in China

The Present Conditions of Religion in China

The Present Conditions of Religion in China
Presented by the Head of Chinese Religious Leaders' Delegation
His Excellency Bishop Michael Fu Tie-shan

Esteemed guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

    The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders will be held in the Headquarters of the United Nations on 28th-31st of August.  Around 1,000 religious and spiritual leaders from all over the world will be gathering together to discuss the issues of regional conflicts and world peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, poverty and environmental protection, so on and so forth, thus promoting sincere forgiveness and reconciliation and clearing up the disaster of poverty and deterioration of the environment.  Furthermore, the religions can play their special role in dealing with all regional conflicts caused by religious and ethnic factors and take their due responsibility to work for world peace and progress of mankind.

The Chinese Religious Leaders Delegation is composed of 7 religious leaders who are invited by the Secretary General of the Summit to participate in this Conference.  To strengthen the understanding and friendship between China and the United States, and that between Chinese religions and American religions, we will particularly take the opportunity to visit your country before the Summit.

China is a country with a great diversity of religious beliefs.  Hereby, I would like to introduce to you the present conditions of religion in China to improve your understanding of Chinese religions.

1.  The present conditions of religion n China

The 7 religious leaders of the Chinese religious leaders' delegation are from the 5 major religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Citizens of China may freely choose and express their religious beliefs and make clear their religious affiliations, which has been written expressly un the Chinese Constitution.  According to incomplete statistics, there are over 100 million religious believers.  Though they account for only 10% of the total Chinese population, its aggregate number is still large.  For the normal religious activities, more than 85,000 sites and more than 3000 religious communities throughout China have been set up.  There are 30,000 clergy serving the religious believers.  In addition, there are 74 religious schools and colleges run by religious organizations for training clerical personnel to meet the need of the increasing number of believers.

Buddhism has a history of 2,000 years in China,  Currently China has 13,000 Buddhist temples and about 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns.  Among them are 120,000 lamas and nuns, more than 1,700 Living Buddha, 3,000 temples of Tibetan Buddhism, nearly 10,000 Bhiksu and senior monks and more than 1,600 temples of Pali Buddhism.

Taoism, native to China, has a history of more than 1,7000 years.  China now has over 1,500 Taoist temples and more than 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns.

Islam was introduced to China in the 7th Century.  Nowadays in China there are 10 national minorities, including the Hui and Uygur, with a total population of 18 million, whose faith is Islam.  there are 30,000 odd mosques that are served by 40,000 Imams and Akhunds.

Catholicism was introduced into China intermittently in the 7th century, but it had not spread widely until after the opium War in 1840.  At present, China has more then 4 million Catholics, 4,000 clergy and more then 5,400 churches and meeting point.

Protestantism was first brought to China in the early 19th century and spread widely after the Opium War.  There are about 10 million protestants, more then 18,000 clergy, more than 12,000 churches and 25,000 meeting points throughout China.

China has the following national religious organizations:  Buddhist Association of China, Taoist Association of China, Islamic Association of China, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Chinese Catholic Bishop's College.  Three Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China, and China Christian Council.  Religious leaders and leading organs of the various religious bodies are selected and ordained in accordance with their own regulations.

Religious organizations in China run their own affairs independently and set up religious schools, publish religious classics and periodicals and run social services according to their own needs,  As in many other countries, China practices and the principle of separating religion from education, religion is not a subject taught in schools of the popular education in China, although some institutions of higher learning and research institutes do teach or conduct research into religion.  The various religious schools and institutes set up by the different religious organizations teach religious knowledge in line with their own needs.  All normal clerical activities conducted by the clergy and all normal religious activities held either at sites for religious activities or in believers' own homes in accordance with usual religious practices, such as worshipping the Buddha, reciting scriptures, going to churches, praying, preaching, observing Mass, Baptizing, monkhood initiation, fasting, celebrating religious festivals, observing extreme unction and holding memorial ceremonies, are protected by law as the affairs of religious bodies and believers themselves and shall not be interfered by anybody.

Since the 1980s, approximately 600 Protestant Churches have been reopened or rebuilt each year in China.  By the end of 1996 more than 18 million copies of the Bible had been printed, with special tax exemption treatment.  In addition, more then eight million copies of a hymn book published by the China Christian Council in 1983 have been distributed.  From 1958 t 1995, a total of 126 Catholic Bishops were selected and ordained by the Chinese Catholic Church itself.  In the past dozen of years more than 900 young Catholics priests have been trained or ordained by Chinese Bishops.  More than 3,000 Protestant attend the Sunday Service at Chongwenmen Church in Beijing each week.  The Beijing Nantung Catholic Cathedral provides four Masses on each Sunday with an attendance of more than 2,000, one of which is held in English especially for foreigners in Nantung Cathedral.

In the course of the country's long history, the various religions in China have become part if the traditional Chinese thinking and culture.  In China, all religions have equal status and coexist in tranquility.  Religious disputes are unknown in China,  Religious believers and non-believers respect each other, are united and have a harmonious relationship.  this shows that the Chinese religious believers have the patriotic and church loving tradition.  the various religions all advocate serving the society and promoting people's well-being, such as the Buddhists' " honoring the country and benefiting the people", the Catholics and Protestants' "glorifying God and benefiting the people", the Taoists' "being benevolent, peaceful and harmonious, saving the world and benefiting the people," and the Islam's "praying to Allah to give great reward in this world and hereafter."

The Chinese Religions actively tale part in the social welfare undertakings, such as disaster relief, helping the poor students, giving aid to the disables, stretching out to help the poor and comforting the elderly.  In all aspects, the religious believers are playing their special role as "the light of the world and the salts of the earth."  Consequently we have witnessed so many role models and model families.

The Chinese religious believers are also involved in discussing state affairs as members of the working people, and as masters of their own country.  According to incomplete statistics, there are 17,000 Catholics who are members of their local political consultative conferences and people's congresses.  Among these Catholics, more then 100 are also Members of the National People's Congress (NPC) or the National Committee of the Chinese People's political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).  They can represent all the religions to participate in the discussion on state affairs and social issues during the NPD and CPPCC sessions.  In addition, they can make some suggestions or comments to the government on religious work, from 1993 to 1996, the State Religious Affairs Administration has handled 50 cases filed by the NPC and the CPPCC.

While adhering to the principle of independence and self-administration, Chinese religions are active in having exchanges and contacts with their counterparts all over the world on the bass of equality and friendship.  China's Protestants and Catholic Church have maintain friendly contacts with churches in many countries,  The Chinese Religions have from time to time sent several delegations to take part in the 5th, 6th, and 7th World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Chinese Catholic Church joined the World Catholic Youth Day, and the China Christian Council officially joined the World Council of Churches.  Besides these, in recent years Chinese Churches have sent quite a number of students to study abroad and invited foreign lecturers and scholars to teach in China's seminaries.  the Buddhist communities of China, Korea and Japan regularly meet with each other, forging a golden bond that will help increase exchanges.

Through these approaches, Chinese Religions adapt themselves to and actively participate in the society, increasingly get recognized by the society and become an organic part of the social fabric.  At present, Chinese Religions are developing in a healthy manner:  the religious believers are increasing dramatically, more religious sites are gradually opened, and all the religious activities are held normally.  Different Religions coexist harmoniously and respect each other.  We are very proud to inform you that while religions in Europe and America are in the doldrums,  Religions in China have entered their prime time-"a Golden Period."  All this could not have been done but for the 5,000-year long Chinese cultural tradition featuring "harmony is the most precious thing and we should incorporate things of different natures."  It also has to do with the new policy of separation of political administration from religion and the policy of religious freedom.

II.  The Challenges that religions in China are facing

While we are entering the new century and the new millennium, new opportunities and new challenges are also lying ahead for the religions in China.  How to seize the current challenges are also lying ahead for the religions in China.  How to seize the current opportunities and to meet the challenges has become a problem that various religions in China need to solve.  We think that in the new century, the religions in China are facing three major challenges:  First, the rapid growth in the number of believers in China; second, the rapid change of the Chinese society; third, the religious exchanges with the rest of the world.

The first challenge comes from the various religions in China themselves.  With the earnest implementation of the policy of the freedom of religious beliefs in China, the number of religious believers enjoyed a rapid growth in the past half a century, especially within the past two decades.  For example, the total number of Protestants increased more than ten times since 1949.  It seems to be a good thing for the religions in China.  However, with careful analysis, one will see that the increase also poses a challenge to them.  In spite of the high religious enthusiasm of the believers, what the religious leaders in China are most concerned about is the deficiency in the composition of believers (female, old people and the poor education they have received).  The low quality resulted in the lack of the fundamental belief cultivation and religious knowledge.  Some believers are not able to distinguish the religious truths from heresies and easily go astray.  The fact is that with the rise of the positions of religions in the society, some people have begun to make use of religion to attain their selfish purposes.  We feel deeply sorrowful to see that many believers who were lack of proper belief guidance have been led astray.  on the other hand, the challenge we are facing is also one that comes from the religions themselves.  We need to improve the quality of our clerical personnel.  At the meantime, the rapid growth of the number of believers requires new follow-ups and supportive measures, such as the sites for religious activities, the publication of religious books, the opening of more places for religious activities and the cultivation of more young clerical personnel.  We should overcome our craving for the rapid increase in the quantity of believers, and put more emphasis on the improvement of their inner quality and spiritual growth,  The future of religions in China depends n our steady work and solid progress.

The second challenge comes from the Chinese society.  In the past two decades, the Chinese government has been carrying out economic reforms and opening up policy, and the Chinese economy has changed into a market-oriented one gradually.  The cultures and beliefs in Chinese society become more and more diversified.  In this period of transition, various ideologies and thoughts, including some feudal superstitions that had long disappeared and all kinds of heresies, are striking and threatening true religions.  In the tide of modernization, the secular ideas and ways of life will inevitably influence the religions in China.  Hedonism, money worship and utilitarianism have negative effects on the healthy development of religions in China to varying degrees.  At present, the various religions in China are devoting themselves to the construction of their religious theology and the purification of their beliefs to resist the corrosive influence of heresies.  The construction of theology if the Protestant Church and "Buddhism in mankind' of the Buddhism represent a good example of such efforts.  On the other hand, each religion in China is seeking its own way to adapt itself to, participate in and serve the society.  We believe that only by merging ourselves into the Chinese society, can various religions in China find their real vitality and the source for their constant development.

The third challenge comes form the outside world.  Now China will join the WTO  and the opening up policy is carried out in more depth and more aspects of life.  Meanwhile, against the backdrop of economic globalization and global village, the religions in China are challenged by the outside world.  With more and more religious exchanges between China and foreign countries, a question for the religions in China also arises, i.e., how to introduce their fine traditions to the outside world while preserving their own characteristics.  Catholic Church, Protestant Church and Islam improve their own quality and develop in pace with the rest if the world while making progress in their efforts of localization.  Buddhism and Taoism in China, in their process of modernization and stepping into the outside world, lay great emphasis on presenting the fine traditions of Chinese civilization to the world.  We believe that in the aspects of religious harmony, serving the society and promoting world peace, the experience of various religions in China should provide reference and inspiration for the world.

With the present transformation of society and the expanded exchanges between China and other countries, all kinds of ideologies and theories are constantly emerging.  Some negative and decadent thoughts would inevitably have some influence on the religious beliefs in China.  Moreover, some spiritual rubbish that looks like religion could possibly pollute the pure land of religions in China.  Therefore, I think that, in the basis of harmonious relationship, the various religions n China should make joint efforts in taking precautions against the negative influence of the heresies upon our true religions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we understand that the foreign religious communities show a keen interest in the current state of religions in China.  We feel grateful for their interest.  However, the interest often makes us fell the necessity for further communication.  In many aspects, we are still lacking mutual understanding, communication, and trust.  One clergyman in China once said that God created men and women not to have them quarrel endlessly, but love each other; God divided the world into the East and the West not to have them confront each other, but unite and harmonize with each other,  We come from the opposite shore of the Pacific to this beautiful country.  May the trip of our delegation deepen the understanding and communication of the religions in our two countries and strengthen the friendship between our two peoples.  Thank you!

August 22, 2000 China Religions Forum featuring a delegation of religious officials from China in discussion with local religious leaders and scholars. 

Asia Institute