Catholics, Jews say New York coronavirus restrictions violate religious rights

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent measures to stem local outbreaks of the coronavirus have prompted demands from Catholics and Jews that courts void the restrictions because they limit religious freedom.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of New York of Brooklyn was set to hold hearing Thursday afternoon on a suit it filed in U.S. District Court in the borough on Oct. 8, while three Orthodox Jewish congregations filed suit on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Both actions argue that the state’s restrictions on religious gatherings violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Cuomo issued an order on Oct. 6 that shut down non-essential businesses and restricted gatherings at religious institutions to as few as 10 people in certain targeted areas, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods, where infections have spiked.

Cuomo insisted that his infection-fighting measures were not intended to single out religious groups and were consistent with other steps he has taken to combat geographic “clusters,” which he has defined as “red zones,” where infections spread rapidly.

But he also blamed the Orthodox Jewish communities for causing some of the infection spread in their areas.

“They never complied with any of the close-down rules going back to March,” he said in a briefing on Thursday. “That’s why some find it shocking, because they didn’t follow many of the rules all along.”

In their complaint which is laced with historical references to persecution, the Orthodox congregations said Cuomo has outlawed “all but the most minimal communal religious worship.”

“For Jews, communal worship is an essential service for which untold thousands have risked and sacrificed their lives,” the congregations — Ohalei Shem D’Nitra, Yesheos Yakov and Netzach Yisroel — said in a 33-page complaint.

Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic diocese, meanwhile, was rebuffed on Friday in its request for a temporary court order to bar the restrictions from taking effect.

But the diocese said its case was still alive, with U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis having set a hearing for 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Thursday for arguments on its request for a longer-lasting preliminary injunction against the restrictions in 28 areas of Brooklyn and Queens.

In its complaint the diocese said it has complied with the state’s restrictions since the pandemic erupted in March, and that the new targeted measures are overly broad, infringing not only on worship services but also on ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

“By causing the cancellation or severe curtailment of such services, the order would impose irreparable harm on the Diocese of Brooklyn and those it serves,” said the 22-page complaint.

The state’s targeted measures have sparked protests and occasional violence in some predominantly Hasidic Jewish areas of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. In that area, more than 8% of coronavirus tests came back positive last week.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Tom Brown)

Pope denies audience with Pompeo; Vatican warns against playing politics over China

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – The Vatican said on Wednesday it had denied a request from Mike Pompeo for an audience with Pope Francis, and accused the Secretary of State of trying to drag the Catholic Church into the U.S. presidential election by denouncing its relations with China.

The extraordinary remarks from the two top diplomatic officials at the Vatican came after Pompeo accused the Church in an article and a series of tweets this month of putting its “moral authority” at risk by renewing an agreement with China over the appointment of bishops.

Pompeo, who was in Rome on Wednesday and due to meet Vatican officials on Thursday, repeated his denunciations of China’s record on religious freedom at an event hosted by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.

The Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said Francis had declined a request from Pompeo for an audience, as the pope avoids meeting politicians ahead of elections.

“Yes, he asked. But the pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason,” Parolin said.

The Vatican’s two-year-old agreement with Beijing gives the pope some say over the appointment of Chinese bishops. It was due to expire next month, but is expected to be renewed.

Officials in the Holy See say the agreement is not perfect but call it a step forward, after decades during which Chinese Catholics who recognise the pope were driven underground.

Parolin and Gallagher both described Pompeo’s public criticism as a “surprise,” coming just before his planned visit.

“Normally when you’re preparing these visits between high-level officials, you negotiate the agenda for what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially. It’s one of the rules of diplomacy,” Gallagher said.

“THAT’S JUST CRAZY”

Asked if he believed that Pompeo’s criticisms of the Vatican deal were intended for political use in the United States, Parolin said: “Some have interpreted it this way … that the comments were above all for domestic political use. I don’t have proof of this but certainly this is one way of looking at it.”

The Vatican-China deal “is a matter that has nothing to do with American politics. This is a matter between Churches and should not be used for this type of ends,” Parolin said.

For his part, when asked at a briefing if he was “picking a fight” with the Vatican over China and what impact that could have on Catholic and other Christian voters, Pompeo replied: “That’s just crazy.”

President Donald Trump has campaigned on his hard line towards China ahead of the Nov. 3 election. He is also strongly associated with conservative Protestant and Catholic movements, many of which have been critical of Pope Francis.

In his speech on Thursday, Pompeo did not directly address the Vatican agreement with Beijing, but he described China as the world’s worst abuser of religious rights.

“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” Pompeo said. The Chinese Communist Party was looking to “to snuff out the lamp of freedom … on a horrifying scale”.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Peter Graff)

‘Namaste Trump’: Modi holds huge rally for president’s visit

By Steve Holland and Alasdair Pal

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Donald Trump was cheered by more than 100,000 Indians at the opening of the world’s largest cricket stadium on Monday, promising “an incredible trade deal” and “the most feared military equipment on the planet” at his biggest rally abroad.

Indians wore cardboard Trump masks and “Namaste Trump” hats to welcome the U.S. president at the huge new Motera stadium in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own political homeland, the western city of Ahmedabad.

Modi, a nationalist who won re-election last year and has shifted his country firmly to the right with policies that his critics decry as authoritarian and ethnically divisive, touts his relationship with Trump as proof of his own global standing.

U.S. officials have described Trump’s visit as a way to counter China’s rise as a superpower.

“You have done a great honor to our country. We will remember you forever, from this day onwards India will always hold a special place in our hearts,” Trump said to thunderous applause.

India is one of the few big countries in world where Trump’s personal approval rating is above 50%. It has built up ties with the United States in recent years as Washington’s relationship has become strained with India’s foe Pakistan.

“As we continue to build our defense cooperation, the United States looks forward to providing India with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet,” Trump said.

Trump said the two countries will sign deals on Tuesday to sell military helicopters worth $3 billion and that the United States must become the premier defense partner of India, which relied on Russian equipment during the Cold War. Reuters reported earlier that India has cleared the purchase of 24 helicopters from Lockheed Martin <LMT.N> worth $2.6 billion.

But in a sign of the underlying political tensions in India, violent protests broke out in Delhi – where Trump is due on Tuesday – over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims and is a further attempt to undermine the secular foundations of India’s democracy.

Vehicles were set on fire in the eastern part of Delhi, metal barricades torn down, and thick smoke billowed through the air as thousands of those who are supporting the new law clashed with those opposing it.

In his speech Trump extolled India’s rise as a stable and prosperous democracy as one of the achievements of the century. “You have done it as a tolerant country. And you have done it as a great, free country,” he said.

Trump planned to raise the issue of religious freedoms in India with Modi, an administration official said last week.

People leave the Sardar Patel Stadium after U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a “Namaste Trump” event in Ahmedabad, India, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

VERY BIG DEALS

In Ahmedabad, Modi embraced Trump as he stepped off Air Force One, along with his wife, Melania.

Folk dancers carrying colorful umbrellas danced alongside the red carpet as drummers, trumpeters and other musicians performed at the airport to welcome Trump and the U.S. delegation. Crowds lined the route along his cavalcade, many taking pictures on their phones.

The two sides did not manage to hammer out a trade deal ahead of the visit, with differences remaining over agriculture, medical devices, digital trade and proposed new tariffs. Trump said he was going to discuss economic ties with Modi, describing him as a tough negotiator.

“We will be making very, very major, among the biggest ever made, trade deals. We are in the early stages of discussion for an incredible trade agreement to reduce barriers of investment between the United States and India,” he said.

“And I am optimistic that working together, the prime minister and I can reach a fantastic deal that’s good and even great for both of our countries – except that he is a very tough negotiator.”

Modi, who has built a personal rapport with Trump, is pulling out the stops for the president although prospects for even a limited trade deal during the visit are seen as slim.

“There is so much that we share, shared values and ideals … shared opportunities and challenges, shared hopes and aspirations,” said Modi at the rally.

Trump, who faces his own re-election campaign this year, has frequently praised Modi for his crowd-pulling power.

Last year, Trump held a “Howdy Modi” rally with Modi in Houston, drawing 50,000 people, mainly Indian Americans. At the time, Trump likened Modi to Elvis Presley as a draw for crowds.

Later, Trump and his entourage which includes daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner flew to Agra to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. Children lined the route cheering and waving flags as his convoy drove past.

Trump and Melania posed for pictures at the Taj, the 17th century monument to love. “It’s incredible,” he told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta, Euan Rocha in New Delhi, Zeba Siddiqui in Agra; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)

Prayer in schools, New Guidance from the White House to Protect Students’ Rights

Folded hands over Bible.

By Kami Klein

Prayer in schools is a hot button topic but receives very little attention from mainstream media. Last week on National Religious Freedom Day this issue received the White House’s full attention when President Trump announced that it is taking action to further safeguard students’ constitutionally protected right to pray in school.

In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that leading public prayer in classrooms violated a First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a government religion. Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court has never outlawed “prayer in schools.” Students are free to pray alone or in groups, as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others. But this right “to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.” (This is the language supported by a broad range of civil liberties and religious groups in a joint statement of current law.)

In a White House article, The Department of Education has said that it is proposing additional regulations and guidance, including a regulation laying out that “a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious student group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have.” With the updated guidance on prayer in public schools, the department will also be “fulfilling a statutory requirement to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” This guidance is required to be updated every two years but hasn’t been updated since 2003. The guidance will now spell out processes for reporting allegations of religious discrimination in schools to the department.

Foremost on the guidance are requirements giving education providers and students the most current information concerning prayer in public schools. This update will help safeguard students’ rights to prayer, making clear that students can read religious books and material or pray during recess and other non-instructional periods, organize prayer groups, and express their religious beliefs in their assignments.

Local educational agencies must confirm that their policies do not prevent or interfere with the constitutionally-protected rights outlined in the guidance in order to receive Federal funds This new action will also help improve individuals’ ability to file a complaint if they are denied participation in protected religious expression.

To ensure that the Nation’s religious organizations are treated equally by the Federal government the administration is also issuing nine proposed rules to protect religious organizations from unfair and unequal treatment by the Federal government. The proposed rules would eliminate burdensome requirements that unfairly imposed unique regulatory burdens only on religious organizations.

Federal agencies will also be receiving a memo requiring them to safeguard grantmaking practices of state recipients of Federal funding to comply with the First Amendment to ensure religious organizations can compete on a level playing field for funding without discrimination.

During his first year in office, President Trump signed an Executive Order upholding religious liberty and the right to engage in religious speech as well as signing an Executive Order recognizing the essential contributions of faith-based organizations and establishing the Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

Last year, President Trump hosted a Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom event at the United Nations and called on the international community and business leaders to work to protect religious freedom around the world.

Resources:  CNNWhite House Government briefing Freedom Forum Institute Voice of America 

Russia widens Jehovah’s Witnesses crackdown with new jailings

Adherents of the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky pose for a picture inside the building of a regional court in Saratov, Russia in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDI

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has widened a crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses, jailing six adherents of the Christian denomination for extremism in a move rights activists said was unjust and flouted religious freedom.

A regional court in Saratov jailed six Jehovah’s Witnesses on Thursday for up to three-and-a-half years, a court spokeswoman said on Friday.

“Yes they were convicted,” the spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, said. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

The court found the six men guilty of continuing the activities of an extremist organization, a reference to a 2017 ruling from Russia’s Supreme Court which found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

The latest jailings follow the conviction in February of a Danish builder in Russia for his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing an extremist group and jailed for six years.

Over 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges, according to the group, with 41 in detention and 23 under house arrest.

‘SPECULATIVE THESIS’

Under Thursday’s ruling, Konstantin Bazhenov and Alexei Budenchuk were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, Felix Makhammadiev to three years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Alexei Miretsky to two years in prison each.

The court also banned them from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their adherents’ right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.

“The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is ‘a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization’,” Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia.”

Lawyers for the men plan to appeal what they regard as absurd convictions, said Lopes.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Rachel Denber of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s ruling, saying the men had been jailed for nothing.

“They should be freed,” Denber said on social media.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Vatican defends confessional secret as sexual abuse crisis stings

FILE PHOTO: A general view of St. Peter's square as Pope Benedict XVI conducts a special mass in Vatican City in this October 21, 2012 file photograph. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini /Files

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican on Monday reaffirmed Catholic teaching that priests cannot reveal what they learn in confession, in an apparent response to moves in Australia and elsewhere to force them to do so in cases of sexual abuse.

A document from the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with issues of the sacrament of confession, said no government or law could force clergy to violate the seal “because this duty comes directly from God.”

The document, which did not mention any countries or the sexual abuse crisis, complained of a “worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church”.

Most countries’ legal systems respect the religious right of a Catholic priest not to reveal what he has learned in confession, similar to attorney-client privilege.

But the sexual abuse crisis that has embroiled the Catholic Church around the world has seen this right challenged more frequently.

In Australia, an inquiry into child abuse recommended that the country introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including priests told of it during confession.

So far, two of Australia’s eight states have introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in confession. Others are still considering their response.

In May, the California state Senate passed a bill to require the seal of confession to be broken if a priest learns of or suspects sexual abuse while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or a colleague such as a Church worker.

Church leaders in both the United States and Australia have opposed such laws and the document backed them up unequivocally.

“Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offence against the (freedom of the Church),” the document said.

“(The Church) does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it (breaking the seal) would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors,” it said.

Victims advocates said the lifting of the seal of confession, even partially, was drastic but necessary under the circumstances.

“As a Catholic, I too am shaken by incursions on the seal of confession. But it’s the leaders of the Catholic church, not civil society, that have gotten us to this point,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org.

“Secret church files made public in Australia and the United States reveal many instances of confession being used to absolve an abuser, allowing him to remain in ministry and re-offend,” she told Reuters in an email.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella with additional reporting by Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Larry King)

Morocco’s hidden Christians see Pope trip as chance to push for freedom

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis is seen during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan converts to Christianity, a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, are looking to Pope Francis’ visit next week as an chance to press their demands for religious freedom.

Francis will spend two days in Rabat on his first trip to the North African country from March 30-31 – the first visit there by any pope in nearly 35 years.

He will spend time with Roman Catholics – most of them expatriate Europeans, mainly French, and sub-Saharan African migrants – who are free to worship in churches such as the capital’s art deco St. Peter’s Cathedral.

But unlike those “foreign Christians”, Moroccan converts say they are forced to worship at home, in secret. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned – as it is in many Muslim countries – and proselytizing is punishable by up to three years in prison.

One group backing them – the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms – has already written to the Vatican, raising its concerns, and it is planning a sit-in outside a church in Rabat on the eve of the visit.

“We want laws that protect religious minorities in the country on an equal footing,” the head of the association, Jawad El Hamidy, said.

“We will seize the pope’s visit to put more pressure on the state to protect religious freedoms.”

“NO DISCRIMINATION”

Morocco has marketed itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy – and has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the authorities did not violate religious freedoms. “There is no persecution in Morocco and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith,” he told reporters when asked about the accusations.

But converts point to the constitution, which formally recognizes the existence of Moroccan Muslims and Jews – but not of Moroccan Christians. They also point to their day-to-day experience.

“When I went to a church to declare my faith, I was told that I was prohibited to do so by Moroccan law,” said a 40-year-old Moroccan Christian who gave his name as Emmanuel and asked not be shown while filmed.

“We call on Moroccan authorities and the Holy Father to seize the opportunity offered by this papal visit to launch a sincere dialogue on religious freedom for Moroccan citizens,” the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, said.

There are no official statistics, but leaders say there are about 50,000 Moroccan Christians, most of them from the Protestant Evangelical tradition – outnumbering the estimated 30,000 Roman Catholics in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the Association’s letter. But the most senior Roman Catholic in Morocco – the Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez&nbsp;Romero – offered his support.

“We as Catholic Christians appreciate that we fully enjoy the freedom of faith but we will be happier if the Moroccan people could also enjoy that,” the Spanish cleric told reporters.

“I would love to be able to become Moroccan without having to change my religion.”

(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)

Russia jails Dane for six years in Jehovah’s Witnesses purge

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Wednesday found a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years in a case critics condemn as crushing religious freedom.

Armed police detained Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide. Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more.

The court in the city of Oryol on Wednesday found Christiansen guilty after a long trial, his lawyer, his wife and a representative for the Jehovah’s Witnesses told Reuters.

Christiansen had pleaded innocent, saying he was exercising freedom of religion guaranteed in Russia’s constitution.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen called on Moscow to respect religious freedom and criticized it for classifying Jehovah’s Witnesses on a par with terrorist groups.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

DOZENS MORE CAUGHT IN CRACKDOWN

But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Christiansen moved to Murmansk in northern Russia in 2000 where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were already well established and met his wife Irina there. The couple later moved to Oryol because the climate is milder and housing cheaper.

He speaks Russian and says he is a fan of Russian culture.

Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal Wednesday’s verdict, which he termed illegal and feared would set a dangerous precedent.

More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses, with another 24 people in prison awaiting or on trial and a similar number under house arrest. Some of their publications are on a list of banned literature.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the verdict evoked the atheist Soviet period when Moscow persecuted the group.

“In essence we have returned to Soviet times,” said Sivulsky, whose own father Pavel was jailed for seven years in 1959 for printing bible literature. “It’s sad that in the 21st century people are being jailed for holding what the authorities believe to be the wrong beliefs.”

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said there were clearly reasons for Christiansen’s arrest but he was unaware of details.

Irina, Christiansen’s wife, said she and her husband were calm despite what they saw as an injustice. Before the verdict, she said state TV had nurtured existing widespread prejudice in Russian society against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a strategy she said helped distract people from low living standards.

(Additonal reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and by Andreas Mortensen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Christian Lowe)

China outlaws large underground Protestant church in Beijing

FILE PHOTO: The head pastor of the Zion church in Beijing Jin Mingri poses for picures in the lobby of the unofficial Protestant "house" church in Beijing, China, August 28, 2018. Picture taken August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing city authorities have banned one of the largest unofficial Protestant churches in the city and confiscated “illegal promotional materials”, amid a deepening crackdown on China’s “underground” churches.

The Zion church had for years operated with relative freedoms, hosting hundreds of worshippers every weekend in an expansive specially renovated hall in north Beijing.

But since April, after they rejected requests from authorities to install closed-circuit television cameras in the building, the church has faced growing pressure from the authorities and has been threatened with eviction.

On Sunday, the Beijing Chaoyang district civil affairs bureau said that by organizing events without registering, the church was breaking rules forbidding mass gatherings and were now “legally banned” and its “illegal promotional material” had been confiscated, according to images of the notice sent to Reuters late on Sunday and confirmed by churchgoers.

“I fear that there is no way for us to resolve this issue with the authorities,” Zion’s Pastor Jin Mingri told Reuters.

China’s religious affairs and civil affairs bureaux did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

Churches across China have faced new waves of harassment and pressure to register since a new set of regulations to govern religious affairs in China came into effect in February and heightened punishments for unofficial churches.

In July, more than 30 of Beijing’s hundreds of underground Protestant churches took the rare step of releasing a joint statement complaining of “unceasing interference” and the “assault and obstruction” of regular activities of believers since the new regulations came into effect.

China’s Christian believers are split between those who attend unofficial “house” or “underground” churches and those who attend government-sanctioned places of worship.

Churchgoers were also given a notice from the district religious affairs bureau saying that the “great masses of believer must respect the rules and regulations and attend events in legally registered places of religious activity”.

Zion’s attendees were also given pamphlets of officially sanctioned churches that they might attend instead.

But for many worshippers and pastors, such as Jin, accepting the oversight and ultimate authority of the Communist Party would be a betrayal of their faith.

“On this land, the only one we can trust in is God,” Jin said.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. government creates health division for ‘religious freedom’

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is seeking to further protect the “conscience and religious freedom” of health workers whose beliefs prevent them from carrying out abortions and other procedures, in an effort likely to please conservative Christian activists and other supporters of President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday it will create a division within its Office of Civil Rights to give it “the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom.”

Healthcare workers, hospitals with religious affiliations, and medical students among others have been “bullied” by the federal government to provide these services despite existing laws on religious and conscience rights, the top HHS official said.

“The federal government has hounded religious hospitals…forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences,” Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said. “Medical students too have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences.”

Politico reported on Wednesday that the department is aiming to give protections for workers who do not want to provide abortions, care for transgender patients seeking to transition, or perform other procedures because of moral or religious grounds.

The move is likely to upset reproductive rights advocates and some Democrats.

The division would enforce the legal protection and conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers with religious or moral objections to opt out.

The creation of the division is in accordance with an executive order signed by Trump last May called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” The order was followed by new rules aimed at removing a legal mandate that health insurance provide contraception.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Alistair Bell)