China's central control extends not only to its Muslim regions, but to Tibet and into the affairs of virtually every religious group in the country. This includes forbidding cross-national relationships that are routine elsewhere, such as not allowing the Catholic hierarchy to be obedient to Rome. In India, by contrast, different dynamics are at play. Despite allowing religious groups to have substantial control over their own affairs - including having their own personal status laws - India's center is often hard pressed to adequately address religious tensions that erupt into violence.
Here are three important things to understand about the religious situation in each of Asia's two giants.**
It's true, according to Pew Research, that the majority of China's population (52%) is unaffiliated with any particular religion. But this does not mean that they are religiously inactive. For example, belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of Chinese unaffiliated adults and 44% of unaffiliated adults say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year, according to a 2007 Spiritual Life Study of Chinese Residents survey.
More surprising to some is that nearly 300 million Chinese are affiliated with folk religions. Globally this means that more than seven-in-ten (73%) of the world’s folk religionists live in China.
China not only leads the world in the number of folk religionists, but also in the number of Buddhists. Some 244 million people in China adhere to Buddhism, making China home to half (50%) of the world’s 488 million Buddhists.
Moreover, China's 68 million Christians make China home to the world’s seventh-largest Christian population. China's approximately 25 million Muslims constitute the world's 17th largest Muslim population, right after Saudi Arabia (# 16) and before Yemen (#18).
And China has the world's second largest shares of people who belong to faiths in the “other religion” category (16%), many of whom are adherents of Taoism. The World Religion Database estimates there are more than 8 million Taoists worldwide.
Although there is wide variation in the implementation of regulations on religion across the country, from mid-2007 until the end of 2011 Pew Research indicates that government restrictions on religion in the country have continued to remain at a very high level.
In China, religion is heavily monitored and regulated by central government agencies, most extensively by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, who make up a vast majority of public office holders, are required to be atheists.
The government’s heavy regulation of religion has led to three distinct religious markets: state sanctioned religious organizations, underground (banned) religious groups, and religious groups with “ambiguous legal status.”
The five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” are Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant. Religious groups belonging to these five associations are the only groups permitted to register with the government and hold worship services. Other religious groups, including Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican, are not permitted to register as legal entities.
However, even state-sanctioned religious associations face restrictions, including restrictions on printing religious texts. The government limits distribution of Bibles to government-approved churches, church bookshops and seminaries – preventing individuals from ordering Bibles directly from publishing houses.
Tibetan Buddhists in the country are not free to venerate the Dalai Lama and the government continues to attempt to exert control over Tibetan religious traditions. Through the Management Measures on Reincarnation regulations, the government officially controls the selection of reincarnate lamas and other Tibetan religious leaders.
3. Social hostilities involving religion are on the rise in China
In China, religious and ethnic minority groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, continue to face social discrimination, tension and violence. A recent Pew Research study note that increasing numbers of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople protested government policies toward Tibet by setting themselves on fire. For instance, two Tibetan lay people, ages 60 and 65, were beaten and killed by police in April 2011 at the Kirti monastery, where they stood in protest against the harsh treatment of Tibetan monks. And in February 2013, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk became the 100th person to protest restrictions in Chinese-governed Tibet after he killed himself by self-immolation in Sichuan Province.
Communal tension and violence continued between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and between multiple ethnic and religious groups in Tibetan areas (including Han, Hui Muslim, Tibetan Buddhists, and Tibetan Muslims).
- The Autonomous Chinese Orthodox Hierarchy was established in 1956, but ceased to existed and has not been reconstituted because the lack of a Bishop (the former Bishop died and had no successor). Currently there are about 20 Orthodox Churches fully registered and functional in China.
- An instance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has been allowed to register in Shanghai about three years ago.
- Ba'hai communities, number in the thousands (Chinese nationals) in at least 7 provinces and have been allow to meet by the State Administration for Religious Affairs and are reportedly in an "acknowledged" status heading towards registration. A meeting of Ba'hai from across China is to take place in Macao this month, and SARA is reported to be sending official representatives to the meeting.
- Folk Religion and its temples have been registered independently apart from the five major religion with provincial religious affairs bureau for some years already. Directorate Four of SARA was established several years ago to deal with religions other than the 5 major ones as well as all religious schools (seminaries..etc).
- There are at least 15 religious groups labelled by the Chinese authorities as "evil cults," such as Falungong, Eastern Lightning, etc. They are part of the religious landscape in China but not administered by SARA/.RAB, but instead dealt with by the Public Security Bureau.
Statistically speaking fewer than 0.1% of Indians report that they have no religion, according to a Pew Research analysis. Over 973 million Hindus live in India, comprising more than nine-in-ten (94%) of the world’s Hindus.
Although Muslims are a minority in India (14% of the total population), India nonetheless has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world (in raw numbers).
Although each accounting for less than 1% of the country’s total population, India is also home to one of the largest Buddhist and Folk religionist populations outside of China. Over 9 million Buddhists and nearly six million adherents of folk religions live in India.
India has the largest share (47%) of all members of other religions, including millions of Sikhs and Jains – amounting to over 27 million people.
2. Social hostilities involving religion are prevalent in India
From mid-2007 until the end of 2011, religious hostilities in the country have continued to remain at a very high level, according to an ongoing study by the Pew Research Center.
As noted above, communal violence occurs somewhat regularly in the country. The U.S. State Department's 2012 international religious freedom report for India noted that many incidents were linked to politics, conversion, retaliation or economic competition for scarce resources among religious communities. In November 2012 the Indian government reported 560 cases of communal violence between January and October of that year. In Uttar Pradesh alone, there were over 100 communal clashes during the year, leaving 34 dead.
Conversion remains a contentious issue. For example, conversion of Hindus or members of lower castes to Christianity sometimes contributed to religion-related social hostilities. Hindu nationalist organizations alleged that Christian missionaries lured Hindus into conversions through various educational and healthcare incentives. While Christians contend that Hindus converted of their own free will and that Hindu groups’ attempts to “reconvert” new Christians to Hinduism were accompanied by offers of financial compensation.
3. Government restrictions on religion in India are often a local affair
In comparison with central government controls of religion in China, India’s government restrictions on religion are often locally driven. The central government of India offers some legal protections for minority religious groups, however such freedoms are often perceived as a threat to social and cultural unity at the local level. Because of the strength of local restrictions on religion in India, Pew Research studies characterize overall restrictions as high.
Although the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu nationalist organizations oppose conversions from Hinduism and assert that all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, should adhere to Hindu cultural values, which they see as the country’s values.
The National Commission for Minorities Act recognizes five religious communities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Buddhists – as minority communities. The law provides that the government will protect these religious minority groups and encourage conditions to promote their individual identities.
There are also different state laws that are only applicable to certain religious communities, known as personal laws. The government allows significant autonomy to personal status law boards in crafting these laws. Hindu, Christian, Parsi (Zoroastrian) and Islamic laws are legally recognized. Local authorities reportedly used part of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to restrict minority religious groups. For example, one provision prohibits “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion…and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” While, another provision prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Local authorities typically alleged that information in pamphlets or discussions at gatherings were injuring the religious sentiments of members of the majority religious group.
There are “anti-conversion” laws in five of the 28 states, state governments enforce existing “anti-conversion” laws, as protective measures to prevent individuals from being induced to change their faith.
Despite the National Commission for Minorities Act, some local police and enforcement agencies reportedly have failed to respond effectively to communal violence, including attacks against religious minorities. For instance, last October, Hindu nationalists reportedly attacked a group of Christians attending a baptism ceremony in Khantapada, Odisha. Following the alleged attack, local police officers arrested 20 of the Christian parishioners, instead of the attackers.
** Angelina Theodorou provided valuable assistance with this analysis.
For more on global patterns of religious hostilities and restrictions, see my TEDx Talk.