China Tells Temples to Grant Orphans Freedom of Religion

Last year, a fire blazed through a private orphanage in Henan province, killing five young boys and girls. It sparked outrage and demands that the country do more to protect the welfare of China’s orphans and the thousands of infants abandoned every year.

This week, in an unusual move, the government said it also wanted to ensure that orphans don’t face indoctrination “in order to protect their legitimate interests.”

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, religious groups such as temples and nunneries account for 74% of the 878 privately operated organizations that care for China’s orphans, including nearly 10,000 babies.

Orphans are among the world’s most vulnerable children, facing threats from human trafficking to neglect to sexual abuse. They are also occasionally seen as ripe targets for conversion by religious groups.

”In recent years, the religious community has played an important role when it comes to helping orphans and abandoned children,” the government notice said. “But still, the supervision and management [of such establishments] is insufficient.”

The government said it wants to make sure religious organizations that care for children have stable funding and a stable group of employees. Only registered religious groups conforming to government safety standards will be allowed to adopt children, its notice said.

The ministry also said in the notice that it would urge coordination among departments in charge of public security, health care and family planning, to try to solve the household-registration problem that besets many orphans.

On Wednesday, an article by government mouthpiece China Daily quoted Zou Xiang of the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, Henan province, as saying children the temple cares for are free to choose their own religion. “We just provide a safe shelter for them,” he said.

The article quoted a worker as saying the children aren’t forced to read Buddhist teachings, though they are encouraged to learn Confucian classics and Shaolin kung fu.

The notice comes as the government steps up its efforts to ensure that abandoned children are properly cared for. Most famously, across a number of cities, some two dozen so-called “baby hatches” have opened that allow parents to safely and anonymously abandon their infants. Many of the babies left behind have severe disabilities or other illnesses.

In March, the southern city of Guangzhou suspended its baby-hatch program because it was overwhelmed by too many abandoned infants, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.