The Chinese government recognizes only five religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslim and Taoists.
SALT LAKE CITY — There is no hint of a Mormon presence in the high-rise where the Beijing LDS branches meet.
Visitors must pass through a lobby featuring several boutiques, including a liquor store, find their way to the elevator, take it to the fourth floor and then stroll down a long hallway. No familiar logo above the door. No church name or meeting times on the directories.
And every Sunday as expatriates gather for their weekly services, the branch (congregation) president reads an official statement from the pulpit, explaining to any new members or visitors that proselytizing is forbidden. So is distributing LDS literature or mingling with Mormons who are Chinese nationals and meet separately.
None of that is likely to change with this week’s announcement that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has held “high-level” talks that are “expected to lead to ‘regularized’ (church) operations” in China.
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The Utah-based faith isn’t about to overwhelm the world’s most-populous nation with young men in dark suits or erect temples in Beijing, Shanghai or anywhere else on the mainland.
“It is important to understand what the term regularizing means, and what it does not mean,” LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson said in a news release. “It does not mean that we anticipate sending missionaries to China. That issue is not even under consideration.”
The same goes for temples. The church has a temple in Hong Kong to serve its 24,000-plus members there. But outside of Hong Kong and nearby Macau, the LDS Church is not allowed to proselytize in China.
So what does “regularizing” mean? Even longtime China scholars such as Brigham Young University political scientist Eric Hyer aren’t sure.
The whole issue of religion in China is “irregular,” said Hyer, who directs the LDS Church-owned school’s Asian studies program and who spent the summer in Beijing.
The Chinese government recognizes only five religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslim and Taoists (the only native Chinese faith, the others all were imported).
Mormonism, which did not break off from other forms of Christianity but rather claims to be the restoration of Jesus’ original church, does not fit into any of those groups.
“As religions have become more and more common in China and as religion is more freely practiced, government officials are left with this straitjacket of categories,”Hyer said. “They don’t know what to do. Are they going to create a new category?”
So that, he said, has left Mormonism in a kind of legal limbo.
Chinese nationals, who joined the LDS Church elsewhere, have formed branches (smaller versions of Mormon wards) throughout the country. Some of their family members have been allowed to be baptized into the church but none may meet with expatriates.
Expatriates, Hyer said, must send their tithing directly to church headquarters, rather than to local leaders, because the church does not have a bank account there.
This move to “regularize”church operations may make official what’s being done unofficially now, he said. Government leaders maybe wanted “to help facilitate the church’s activities, financially and legally, without recognizing it.”