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Religion and control of it growing in atheist China

Religion, and state efforts to control it, is growing dramatically in officially atheist China, with Christianity and Islam seen as particular vehicles for foreign influence and infiltration, according to a report released Monday.

The report, "China: State Control of Religion," issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia, said that Buddhism was the fastest-growing religion in China, which recognizes 100 million religious believers among its 1.2 billion population, a figure it has used since the mid-1950s.It found past abuses such as long-term imprisonment, violence and physical abuse by security forces against religious activists were occurring less frequently since the group's first study of religion in China, in 1992.

Rather, government control takes the form of a registration process administered by the State Council's Religious Affairs Bureau, which monitors membership in religious organizations, meeting locations and religious publications and funding.

Failure to register can result in the imposition of fines, seizure of property, razing of religious structures, forcible dispersal of religious gatherings and sometimes, detention.

According to the report, which was based on official Chinese documents, interviews in mid-1997 with people involved in religious activities in China and Hong Kong and a wide range of secondary sources, politics and religion remain most deeply intertwined in Tibet.

China's efforts to exert control across the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas have intensified steadily since 1994, the report said, notably through a campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama as a religious leader.

More than 150 people have been arrested in the course of the four-year Tibet campaign, Human Rights Watch said.

But it found some cause for hope in June 1997 reports that enforcement of the ban on displaying Dalai Lama photographs had been somewhat relaxed.

In Hong Kong, which last summer reverted to Chinese control, the report said religious communities are uncertain whether the regional government will place any restrictions on their ability to operate, and some leaders worry that self-censorship is already well under way.

But the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration appears to ensure that religious institutions and believers will be treated the same as they were under the British colonial administration, it said.