The central government has warned religious charities against "forcing" children in their orphanages to convert or adopt their religion, sparking renewed discussion about freedom of belief in China.
The warning came in the form of a directive from the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which essentially gave local governments more oversight in the operations of orphanages.
"The religious bodies should not force religious beliefs upon adopted orphans and deserted babies," it stated.
On the grounds of "standardising" their activities, charitable groups, starting from April 30, must partner with a local government above county level when establishing an orphanage.
Only those approved by the government, and which are adequately staffed and financed, are allowed to take in an orphan, it said. The policy was sent to government departments at the end of last month but was only publicised on Monday.
It was unclear if bureaus were reacting to particular cases of children being forced to convert, but an expert suggested it could be common practice.
Huang Wenjian , the China Islamic Association's head of philanthropy, said: "If a religious person adopts a child, he will naturally want the child to follow what he believes in, because to him, that is following [what is] good."
The policy also comes after fierce criticism over lax child-service regulations after seven youths died in a fire at an unlicensed orphanage in Lankao county, Henan province, last year.
A national survey conducted soon after the tragedy found there were 870 non-government orphanages, of which 583 were run by religious groups.
Zhang Liu , a senior analyst at the China Philanthropy Research Institute, said the government should encourage NGOs and individuals to get involved as the number of orphans far exceed places in orphanages, but instead, "the latest [directive[ is restricting them", she said.
Ministry statistics as of 2012 showed that there were 463 state-owned orphanages on the mainland, housing about 95,000 children - but in total there were 570,000 orphans and abandoned children.