Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Right to belief needs State protection

By Li Xiangping (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-26 07:49

Officials at Nanchang, Jiangxi province, didn't expect to catch the attention of the entire nation when they rolled out an ambitious urban development plan of demolishing three Buddhist temples and building a composite one - called "Nanhai Palace" - to "replace" them.

The official website of the government of Xihu district, where the three old temples stand and the new one has been planned, says the development plan is aimed at facilitating religious and cultural activities in the district, and building a facility that would attract tourists in droves. "The temple will occupy a commanding height in Buddhism followers' hearts", the website says.

The effect, however, has been just the opposite. Instead of winning popular support, the plan has elicited only opposition from Buddhists and the residents where the new temple has been planned. The residents oppose the plan because the site of the new temple was originally designated as public green space, not as a place for religious or other activities. Buddhists are against the plan because it will force monks and nuns to live in the same temple complex, which is against Buddhism doctrine and practice.

Finding itself in an awkward position because of the nationwide criticism, the local government has announced that it might choose another site for the temple. But, at the same time, it has emphasized any change in land use has undergone "legal procedures" and it is "determined to implement the plan".

The local government has indeed the authority to make its actions "legal". Journalists, however, have dug out records to show that years ago the local government had indeed promised to build a public green space on the site of the new temple, prompting many people to purchase houses there. By using the disguise of paperwork to break its promise, the local government is distancing itself from residents.

More investigations by the media have revealed that the local officials didn't hold any consultation with either Buddhism followers or local residents. This means the aggrieved parties were not even given a chance to voice their opinions. All that the local government did was to hold some closed-door meetings and then issue a notice saying the three temples would be demolished and a new one be built in their place.

By violating democratic procedures and residents' rights, the local government has posed a direct challenge to the concept of "people-oriented urbanization" advocated by Premier Li Keqiang.

Besides, Buddhist tenets clearly state that male and female followers cannot live in the same temple. The local government's adamant attitude even in the face of nationwide criticism and the risk of violating Buddhists' beliefs shows how arrogant power can become against powerless individuals.

The local officials' claims that the new temple would occupy "a commanding height" in the hearts of Buddhists. But in reality, the temple would become a symbol of "sacrilege". The Constitution clearly states that Chinese citizens shall enjoy religious freedom, which includes choosing their own faith and belief. If local governments start violating religious beliefs, believers will feel marginalized and insecure.

In one sense, the debate on the plan in Nanchang is also a tussle between power and public opinion. The local government's determination, despite public opposition, reflects that it might go ahead with the plan. But if does so, it will lose public trust and create other long-term problems for itself.

Since disputes over demolition of structures have become common during China's urbanization drive, local governments should be extremely careful about razing temples, churches or mosques because they are directly related with the freedom of religion. Religious places that have suffered in recent times include Ruiyun temple in Fuzhou, Fujian province, and Xingjiao temple in Xi'an, Shaanxi province.

So we hope that higher authorities will intervene to stop the folly from being repeated in Nanchang.

The author is a professor at and director of the Center of Religion and Society, affiliated to East China Normal University.

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