Citizens have freedom of religious belief?

Citizens have freedom of religious belief.  That’s the English translation of something from China’s Religious Affairs Regulations.  But is it really true? 

Chinese citizens have the freedom of religious beliefRemember, China is a Communist country.  And an officially atheist one as well.  We must be forgiven if we doubt those fine-sounding words.  Especially after reading part 1 of this series. 

Remember, Article 1 of these regulations included the text, “increase the level of legalification in work on religion” as one of the stated goals for putting them into law.  How does that even make sense? 

Maybe it’s an interpretation or translation issue?  No, it’s not.  We saw that already in part 1.  We’ll see more of it here.  And the harsh reality of that line becomes ever more apparent as we read through the document.  

Those with a short attention span probably won’t notice.  People who are into pithy sound-bites won’t notice either.  But for those of us who like to get into the details, the old saying is all too true here.  The devil really is in the details of this document.

So let’s take a look at the next section.

Religious Affairs Regulations – Chapter 1 General Provisions – Article 2

Citizens have the freedom of religious belief.

No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens).

Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony, and so shall citizens who believe in different religions.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this was true?  Not just in China, but everywhere.  And yet, I wonder, is it actually true anywhere?  I think not.

Citizens have the freedom of religious belief.

As I said, wouldn’t that be nice?  From a certain point of view, it’s pie in the sky stuff.  Some religions hate each other enough that it’s just not possible.  At least not if the extreme views of strict fundamentalists are the ones leading the way.  Look at Sunni and Shia Muslims.  They both think the other isn’t really Islam.  And they’ve been fighting about it for more than a thousand years!

No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion;

Most of us probably agree, it’s not possible to force someone to believe something.  Or to not believe something.  Of course, there’s logic and reasoning, but that’s not force. 

Or someone could hold a gun to our heads, and maybe we’d be willing to die rather than change our belief or non-belief.  But then again, maybe we’d be willing to say anything to stay alive.  And we’d say some words without believing them at all.

But then there’s brainwashing.  Re-education as it’s called in China.  That’s what happens to at least some Muslims.  They’re taken out of society and moved to re-education camps.  China also tries to indoctrinate children at an early age, to learn the official state version of religion.  Please see Separation of church and children in China for more on that topic.

So while, once again, the words sound nice, they aren’t put into practice.  Unless we consider the fact that China’s definition of any particular religion isn’t the same as most of the rest of us.  Even atheism is taught with the goals of the Communist Party in mind.

But here’s the thing.  Is any other country really too much different?  Like here in the U.S., no one’s forced to believe in any given religion.  However, both of our major political parties try to pander to various religions.  Not only that, but to have certain beliefs from those religions be the highlighted ones.  The most important ones.  Meaning that we should vote for them, because they favor some facet of our religion. 

Further, that belief they support should take precedence over all the others.  By doing that, they are trying to shape our religious beliefs.  It’s nowhere near as obvious as what China does.  And yet, because of that, it’s also maybe more insidious than China’s process.  Our is more subliminal in Nature.  It’s somewhat hidden.  Not as in-your-face.

But let’s be honest.  Is the result much different?  From a Christian point of view, eternal souls are being lost.  In both situations.

Religious and non-religious citizens

There appear to be two types of citizens being defined in this Chapter 1 – Article 2.  

citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens)

At first glance, this sounds good too, doesn’t it?  Someone who believes in some religion has status as a religious citizen.  Awesome!  We’re recognized as being religious.  Isn’t that what we’re after?

Well, for many religious people, it seems like that’s exactly what we’re after.  Recognition by the government of our religion.  Why?  Because then we’ll be protected.  Protected from other religions.  And protect from government interference in the practice of our religion.

But – is that really true?

I dare say, no, it’s not true.  It’s not true in China.  And it’s likely not true in other countries either.  Furthermore, even if it is true someplace right now, that status won’t last.  It will be lost.  More on that in a moment.

citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens)

But first, let’s look at the rest of the people.  At those who don’t believe in any religion.

They are in a group as well.  And they probably expect to also be protected from other religions and from the government. 

It’s not unlike what we have here in the U.S.  The Constitution says something about freedom of religion.  And yet, there’s a growing number of people, including politicians and judges, who believe it actually means freedom from religion.  So once again, just how different is China from the rest of the world?  Words are nice.  Practices are more important.

Two types of citizens being defined in this Chapter 1 – Article 2.  

Remember, earlier I wrote, There appear to be two types of citizens being defined in this Chapter 1 – Article 2.  Why did I say it appears instead of there are?  Because it is all about appearances.   There are actually three classes of citizens getting defined.  And within two of them, there are sub-groups.

The thing is, China has “official” religions that are supported by the state.  But they also have what’s commonly called the underground religions. 

The official ones are under the Three Self Church model.  That’s what’s addressed in these religious regulations.  The modified versions of Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, Etc.  The ones that are in line with what the Atheist Communist Government goals.  

On the other hand, we have the, let’s call them “real” versions of religions as they exist in other parts of the world, are banned.  Its members are not religious citizens.  But they also are truly in the non-religious citizens category either.  They’re in the unstated but very real category of believing in illegal religions.  And the penalties for that can be very high.  We’ll see that as we move through the regulations.

nor may they (any organization or individual) discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens)

Do you see what just happened here?  No one may discriminate against religious or non-religious citizens.  Sounds amazing.  Too good to be true.  

And you know what?  It is too good to be true.  Because, as we saw, the religious citizens are the ones who believe in the Three Self Churches run by the atheist Communist Government.  And the non-religious citizens are the ones who don’t believe in any religion.  However, the people who believe in the illegal unmodified versions of any other religion aren’t in either group!  They’re illegal.  They are criminals and enemies of the state.  And since this is the “people’s republic”, they are also enemies of the people.  Therefore, the people must be, and will be, protected from them.  Or so they claim it works like that and for those reasons.

Technically, I guess the government isn’t discriminating against the underground churches and religions.  At least, not in their eyes.  The government, as promised in the religious regulations, is punishing them for various crimes, ranging from creating disharmony all the way to subverting the government and working with foreign influences to do it.  We’ll see that clearly as we move along.

What’s the problem with trying to convert someone to Christianity?

You may wonder, since Christianity doesn’t, or maybe I should Christians aren’t supposed to, force people to convert, what’s the problem?  When done’ according to what Jesus taught, there’s no force.  No coercion.  Just look at the Great Commission.

The Great Commission

Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

There are some things we need to understand about that passage, especially when we’re looking at whether or not religion is being forced on someone.  True enough, Christianity was forced on people in the past.  It may even be happening today in some places.  But that’s not what was supposed to happen.  It’s not what Jesus taught.

First of all, the English wording of go and make disciples of all nations isn’t quite right.  It makes for good grammar.  But it can imply to some that we’re supposed to literally make something, or someone in this case, into something else.  You know – like take a bunch of wood and make a table?  But that’s not what it says in the original Greek.  The word “make” isn’t in there at all!

make disciples - great commission

There’s no Greek word under “make”.  The word is derived from “disciples”, and “make” has been added, either for clarity or for grammar.  I don’t believe it adds clarity, but instead can lead to misunderstanding.  Also notice there’s no Greek word under “of”.  So the more correct English reading is what we see in Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible.

Mt 28:16 And the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mount where Jesus appointed them, 17 and having seen him, they bowed to him, but some did waver. 18 And having come near, Jesus spake to them, saying, ‘Given to me was all authority in heaven and on earth; 19 having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them—to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days—till the full end of the age.’  [1]Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Mt 28:16–20). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

What we end up with then, given that “all the nations” means everyone (as in all people) is: “disciple everyone”.

So maybe the question arises – what does disciple mean?  Does it involve the use of force, coercion or doing something against a person’s will?  Let’s see.  Here’s the Greek word we read as disciple.

3100 μαθητεύω [matheteuo /math·ayt·yoo·o/] v. From 3101; TDNT 4:461; TDNTA 552; GK 3411; Four occurrences; AV translates as “teach” twice, “instruct” once, and “be disciple” once. 1 to be a disciple of one. 1A to follow his precepts and instructions. 2 to make a disciple. 2A to teach, instruct.  [2]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Essential, it means to teach.  That’s interesting, because it makes “disciple all the nations” more grammatically correct than “make disciples of all nations”, based on the meaning.  In any case, normally I’d stop here.  Teaching isn’t generally considered coercion when we think of schools and the like. 

However, since we are talking coercion and re-education centers to force people who ascribe to the normal tenets of a religion to instead believe in the Chinese Three Self Church version, I feel I need to go one step further.  We do have an example of when Jesus sent His disciples (the ones He taught that are now to go teach others) into the world.

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve

10:2-4 pp — Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Ac 1:13
10:9-15 pp — Mk 6:8-11; Lk 9:3-5; 10:4-12
10:19-22 pp — Mk 13:11-13; Lk 21:12-17
10:26-33 pp — Lk 12:2-9
10:34, 35 pp — Lk 12:51-53

Mt 10:1 He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
Mt 10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Mt 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.
Mt 10:11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.

There’s actually quite a bit that follows in this passage.  All of it is relevant.  However, it’s also good for a standalone topic.  Therefore, I’m going to do a complete write-up on the entire passage, and then link to it in here.  I’m trying to keep this relatively short, so we’ll just stick with the point being that Jesus never told His disciples to coerce or force anyone into believing in Him.

As we can clearly see, Jesus told His disciples what to do if someone doesn’t want to hear their message.  

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.

There’s no coercion there.  No re-education.  No force.  If someone wants to learn about Christianity, then teach.  If not, then just leave.  It’s that simple.  At least, if we follow Jesus’ teaching, it’s that simple.  

The bottom line is this.  If the nice words of China’s religious regulations were true, then there’s no issue with Christianity.  The fact that there is an issue means that those nice words aren’t true at all.  It means there’s a reason why their citizens are divided into three groups:  religious citizens, non-religious citizens, and the unstated group of citizens who are breaking the law because their religious beliefs don’t fit into the first two categories.

Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony

I wrote a piece a while back about the idea of religions that coexist.  You can read it on my other site at The problem of Coexist – and – Love your enemy.

One problem of religions that truly manage to coexist, respect each other, and live in harmony is that in order to accomplish those lofty goals, something of each religion must be given up.  The easiest example that I often use is the beliefs about Jesus in Christianity and Islam. 

To Christians, Jesus is the Son of God and our source of salvation. 

To Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, second in importance to Muhammad.  In Islam, Jesus is not the Son of God and He’s has nothing to do with salvation.  In fact, Islam teaches that when Jesus returns to earth, he will tell all the Christians that we were wrong and should have been Muslims. 

This is somewhat of a difficult expectation, given that Muhammad wasn’t even alive until about 600 years after Jesus’ death on the cross.  Which reminds me, Islam also teaches that Jesus never died on the cross.

Now, take just those differences and it’s already easy to see that it’s impossible to reconcile them.  Harmony isn’t possible.  Especially when the Qur’an says:

[9:5] Once the Sacred Months are past, (and they refuse to make peace) you may kill the idol worshipers when you encounter them, punish them, and resist every move they make. If they repent and observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat), you shall let them go. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.  [3]Khalifa Ph.D., Dr. Rashad. Quran – The Final Testament – Authorized English Version of the Original (Kindle Locations 2955-2957). . Kindle Edition.

The problem here has to do with who are the idol worshipers.  I have a number of translations of the Qur’an, and each seems to have its own way of identifying who these idol worshipers (as translated in this particular version) actually are.  At least in the extreme fundamentalist translations, they include what’s known as “people of the book”.  People of the book are one way to refer to Jews and Christians.  

Given that translation and that interpretation of the Qur’an, how can there be any hope for us to coexist in harmony and respect each other? 

Who’s right and who’s wrong about what Sura 9:5 actually means?  Not me.  But based on history and a chronological reading of the Qur’an, Sura 9:5 does appear to target anyone who’s not a Muslim.  In addition to that, based on the reality that different sects of Islam consider the others to apostate and therefore not truly Muslim, they often consider each other to be idol worshippers as well.  It’s a sad state of affairs.  One that many Muslims don’t subscribe to.  But unfortunately, something their sacred texts as well as history point to being correct.

And it’s not just Islam, although the case is easier to make because of verses like that one.  Various religions, including Christianity, have been misused to bring pain and suffering into people’s lives.  Most unfortunate.  And I believe wrong.  And yet, history shows us it happens.  Especially for Christianity though, I firmly believe it’s people misinterpreting or just plain misusing the scriptures. 

and so shall citizens who believe in different religions.

The only thing I can imagine about what this last statement means is that it’s addressed to the people who belong to the third group I identified.  Clearly, those belonging to one of the Three Self Churches are religious citizens.  And just as clearly, atheists and other types of unbelievers are part of the non-religious citizens grouping.

So the only thing left is those who believe in one of the illegal religions.  The true religions, as they exist in the rest of the world and in the underground churches in China.  This allows China to enforce the “shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony” clause for them, without specifically identifying them.

Conclusion – Do Chinese citizens have freedom of religious belief?

Well, technically, they do.  Everyone in China has freedom of religious belief.  However:

People who belong to one of the Three Self Churches have freedom of religious belief.  And they are left alone.  Not punished for their beliefs.

People who are in the non-religious citizens group also have freedom of religious belief.  The freedom to not believe in any religion.  And they aren’t punished either.

Even people who aren’t in either of those groups have freedom of religious belief.  They are able to choose to follow true Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Etc.  However, when they get too noticeable, have too much of an impact on society, do something that causes too much disharmony – then they have a price to pay.  Maybe re-education.  Maybe have their church and homes destroyed.  They might be jailed.  Or sometimes they are “disappeared”.

Ultimately, if we play the word games, which China is doing, the freedom of religion does exist for their citizens.  But that freedom may come with a price if they choose the wrong religion.

However, if we’re honest, does any other government act any differently?  Don’t they all play these word games?  After all, don’t people play word games?  And what is a government, except a bunch of people who, for one reason or another, have power?

So as we criticize China, maybe we should take a look at ourselves too.  Be sure the same things aren’t happening to us, although maybe in more subtle ways.  And also, be sure we aren’t doing it to other people.  It’s so easy.

Remembering two passages from the Gospels might help.

Judging Others

7:3-5 pp — Lk 6:41, 42

Mt 7:1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Mt 7:3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Mt 7:6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

It’s easy to judge someone else.  And these days, it’s popular to judge China.  But besides the fact that we shouldn’t judge, maybe we should also be sure that we aren’t actually doing the very same things we’re condemning China for.

Ask, Seek, Knock – Matthew

7:7-11 pp — Lk 11:9-13

Mt 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Mt 7:9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

The source of the golden rule.  Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.  Not what I learned from my father – do unto others before they do unto you.  There’s way too much of my father’s way – and not enough of my Father’s way.

What should we do about the cost associated with freedom of religion?

Ultimately, as I often write – religion really shouldn’t be defined by the government.  Not by any government.

And when the government does start to get in the way, redefine our religion, or cause other difficulties, our solution shouldn’t be to go to that government to get it made right.  How often do we see Jesus do that in the Bible?  How often do we see any of His disciples do that in the Bible?  Never!

So why do so many of Jesus’ “disciples” today feel the need to do exactly that?  Here are just two examples from the Bible.

Jesus Before Pilate

18:29-40 pp — Mt 27:11-18, 20-23; Mk 15:2-15; Lk 23:2, 3, 18-25

Jn 18:28 Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

Jn 18:30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

Jn 18:31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
“But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. 32 This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

Jn 18:33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jn 18:34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

Jn 18:35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jn 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Jn 18:37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jn 18:38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

Jn 18:40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.

Look what Jesus said in that questioning:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Do we ever say anything about our “home” as Christians not being of this world?  Or do we appeal to the government to make this life what we think our home will be like?  All the while, we should know that this world won’t be like our home as Christians until the new Heaven and the New earth appear, as in the book of Revelation.

The Armor of God

Eph 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Eph 6:19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Notice what Paul says about our struggle:

our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

It’s not against people.  Therefore, it’s not really against the government either.  If it was, Jesus would have responded differently to Pilate.  

Paul also wrote:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.

When we have issues with the government then, shouldn’t we pray to God?  You know, the God who is responsible for that government being in place?  Sometimes it’s a benefit to us.  Sometimes not.  It’s been that way all throughout the Bible.  No reason to expect it to change now, is there? 

The thing is, whatever government is in place, it’s because of us and for us.  Maybe to teach us a lesson.  Sometimes in the Old Testament, to punish the people.  And sometimes to reward the people for their faithfulness to God.  Those are things we don’t like to talk about today.  But maybe those are the very things that might draw us to turn to God and pray to Him – rather than turning to the government and essentially praying to them.

Food for thought.  Lest we wake up one day and find we’re headed the same direction as China.  Are, are we already, and we just don’t know?


1 Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Mt 28:16–20). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
2 Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
3 Khalifa Ph.D., Dr. Rashad. Quran – The Final Testament – Authorized English Version of the Original (Kindle Locations 2955-2957). . Kindle Edition.

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