Religious Freedom Remains Elusive on Many Fronts

Annual Report Tells of Widespread Persecution

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ROME, JULY 2, 2005 ( «Violence, impositions, persecutions» is how Aid to the Church in Need described the situation of religious freedom in the world in 2004. On Thursday the Italian section of the ACN published its annual report on the subject. It presented the report at a press conference in the palace housing the Italian Chamber of Representatives.

Among those speaking during the presentation was Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. On hand was the president of the Chamber of Representatives, Pier Ferdinando Casini.

ACN’s report covered all the countries of the world. Among those under scrutiny were the former Soviet republics, where strict controls over religion were found to persist.

In those republics, the report said, «the influence exercised by ideological atheism over state officials is still extremely powerful.» In Belarus, for example, «strict state control over every expression of cult tends to suffocate the peoples’ religious feelings.» But, while initially President Alexander Lukashenko seemed to side with the Orthodox Church, he later promised to assist and cooperate with the Catholic Church, ACN noted.

In the republic of Georgia, improvements came with the new president Mikheil Saakashvili, who replaced Eduard Shevardnadze in 2004. Since the change there as been a fall in the number of violent attacks against minority religious groups. But problems remain for the Catholic Church regarding the return of property confiscated during the Soviet period. Most of property was given to the Georgian Orthodox Church by the government.

Forbidden symbols

In Western Europe, ACN commented that France has experienced a new wave of secularism, with the implementation of a new law that forbids religious symbols to be worn in schools. Some local authorities in Germany are implementing similar measures.

The report noted that this policy is designed to combat the emergence of Islamic extremism. But, it added, «these provisions do not seem to be really effective.»

In Belgium, a resurgence of anti-Semitism appears to be mainly due to anti-Israeli hostility on the part of Islamic-immigrant groups, rather than neo-Nazis.

In Greece, where the Orthodox Church enjoys predominance, the Catholic Church, along with other denominations, is treated as a private institution. During the last national elections, the Catholic archbishop of Athens, Nikolaos Foskolos, appealed to the candidates, asking for juridical recognition of the Church and the lifting of restrictions applied to Catholics. Among those restrictions: the need to obtain permission from the local Orthodox ordinary to build a church.

In Turkey, respect for religious minorities «remains totally unsatisfactory,» the report stated. Christians are effectively denied access to civil and military institutional jobs, and it is practically impossible to build churches. Moreover, non-Islamic churches have no civil recognition and are thus not permitted to own anything.

On June 21, 2004, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyp Erdogan, received the country’s Catholic bishops, who presented two requests: juridical recognition for the church, and the creation of a mixed committee to prepare and implement this future juridical status.

The Americas

The report observed that in general the Catholic Church in the Americas is free from legislative obstacles. Cuba and Venezuela, however, are exceptions and were cited for some violations of basic human rights.

Some countries were cited for problems due to hostility on the part of local groups to the activities of evangelical organizations. In Bolivia, for example, a crowd of native Quechua destroyed an evangelical church in a remote village in the Andes.

Last year also saw attacks against members of the clergy. In Brazil, three missionaries were kidnapped. In Chile, an Italian priest, Faustino Gazzieri, was assassinated July 24 in the cathedral of Santiago. The killer, Rodrigo Enrique Orias Gallardo, turned out to be a member of a satanic sect.

The situation involving violence and the violation of human and religious rights in Colombia is extremely serious, the report noted. During 2004 more than 3,000 civilians were killed for political reasons, while at least 600 have disappeared and 2,200 have been kidnapped. Among Church figures kidnapped last year was the bishop of Yopal, Misael Vacca Ramírez.

The Catholic Church has established a pastoral care program for refugees, and has reached agreements with dioceses in bordering countries, especially those in Ecuador, where the peasants have fled for relief. ACN commented that the Church is the only institution present in many rural areas and also operates the most important nongovernmental organizations in the field of human rights.

In Cuba the situation for the Catholic Church is serious. The report cited an interview last year by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who lamented that the government was systematically ignoring the Church’s pleas. The cardinal explained that there is no real material persecution of Catholics, but rather a more subtle form, which tries to relegate all religious activities and testimonies to the fringes of society and politics. The Church, in fact, has no access to the press. The teaching of the Catholic religion is not allowed in state schools. And it is impossible to open a private Catholic school.

In Guatemala, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos received death threats due to his activities in support of the rights of the indigenous people working in the open mines in the diocese, ACN reported. Then, on July 31, a diocesan priest, Father Eusebio Manuel Sazo Urbina, was shot and killed in the capital. Some media reports linked his murder to the work he did in support the development of this community, which was viewed with hostility by criminal gangs.

Ailing Asia

«During 2004 religious freedom suffered substantial and systematic violations in China,» the report observed. The Beijing government permits religious activity only by registered associations. It conceives of religion as being in the service of state security and the nation’s progress. Thus, freedom of worship is not an innate right for people but a concession by the state.

New national laws on religion led to little real improvement: The statutes contain provisions allowing the government to arrest and imprison as common criminals those acting outside the controlled organizations.

Yet, churches continue to attract ever-greater numbers of followers throughout the country. As well, conversions to Christian groups have increased among professors, intellectuals and students.

During 2004 there was a series of arrests of clandestine Catholics practicing their faith outside the recognized associations. Arrests, intimidations, compulsory participation in indoctrination courses and interrogations have been reported in the regions of Fujian, Zhejiang, Inner Mongolia, Henan and especially Hebei.

In North Korea, over the last 50 years about 300,000 Christians have vanished, the report noted. Believers are obliged to register in organizations controlled by the Communist Party. Those who fail to comply face frequent, and brutal, persecutions. Religious freedom has yet to go global.

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