Religious Freedom Elusive in Much of Asia

Islamic Countries Also Prominent in Annual U.S. Report

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 3, 2001 ( The U.S. State Department´s third annual “International Religious Freedom Report” singles out a number of Asian countries, including, not surprisingly, Afghanistan.

The introduction to the report states that its purpose “is to advance the U.S. policy of promoting religious freedom internationally — to speak for that freedom in the world.” The report covers the period July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2001.

The countries singled out for strongest criticism are those defined as “totalitarian and authoritarian regimes” that seek a monopoly of ideas.

Taking On the Taliban

The Taliban in Afghanistan are blamed for “a marked deterioration of religious freedom” due to the rigid enforcement of Shariah, or Islamic law. The report cites the repression of minority Shiites, the destruction of the two giant Buddhist statues, and the prohibition against religious activity by non-Muslims.

Burma is another Asian country singled out for its totalitarian government. The report accuses Burmese authorities of imposing restrictions by means of infiltrating the meetings and activities of religious organizations. The regime has also blocked efforts by the Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom.

In China, religious freedom has worsened, the report says. Authorities were particularly repressive in their treatment of the Falun Gong movement and Tibetan Buddhist monks.

In some areas, underground Catholic churches loyal to Rome as well as Protestant “house churches” were subject to more-frequent raids and persecution. Authorities cracked down on unregistered churches, and threatened extortion, detention and demolition of property.

Laos and Vietnam were chastised too. The Laotian government, the U.S. report said, forced hundreds of Christians to sign renunciations of their faith, and it closed down more than 65 churches.

Vietnam repressed groups that lack official recognition, and kept restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of groups that are approved. Vietnam “continued to limit the numbers of ordinations to the clergy, the publication of religious materials, and educational and humanitarian activities,” the report said. The state also controls the groups by means of political evaluations of their leadership and of would-be priests and monks.

In North Korea, the panorama is still one of widespread persecution. The U.S. State Department report noted, “Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested or killed because of their religious beliefs.”

Independent confirmation of these allegations is hard to find, but “the collective weight of anecdotal evidence of harsh treatment of unauthorized religious activity lends credence to such reports,” the report said.

Outside Asia, Cuba was singled out for its restrictions. This involves efforts by the Ministry of Interior that include “infiltration, surveillance and harassment of religious groups.” The government rarely authorizes permits for the construction of new churches, forcing many of the faithful to seek permits to meet in private homes. Obtaining a permit and buying materials to repair existing churches continues to be a lengthy and expensive process.

Islamic countries

The report devotes a section to how some governments persecute minority religions. In this group there are a number of Islamic nations. Iran is criticized for provoking anti-Bahai and anti-Jewish sentiment for political purposes. “Bahais, Jews, Christians, Mandaeans and Sufi Muslims reported imprisonment, harassment or intimidation based on their religious beliefs,” the U.S. report affirmed.

In Iraq, where Sunni Arabs dominate economic and political life, the government systematically discriminates against Shiites, “severely restricting or banning many Shi´a religious practices.” The authorities are accused of having carried out for decades “a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against the Shi´a religious leaders and adherents.”

In Pakistan, where last Sunday a group of Christians were massacred while worshipping in a Catholic church, the government is said to have failed to protect the rights of minorities. Minorities are consigned to a separate electoral system and frequently become the unfair targets of blasphemy laws, the U.S. report charged.

Saudi Arabia doesn´t fare much better. “Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” the report said flatly. All citizens are required to be Muslims, and public manifestations of non-Muslim religions are prohibited. Even private non-Muslim worship often comes under persecution. Authorities do not allow clergy to enter the country to conduct non-Muslim religious services.

Sudan is another Islamic regime accused of restricting religious activities, particularly of Christians and traditional indigenous faiths. Visas for foreign Catholic priests are renewed with difficulty, notes the report, and “non-Muslims are treated as second-class citizens.”

Two former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, also draw the report´s attacks. In Turkmenistan, the government required all religions to register, but in fact has only allowed Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy to sign up. In Uzbekistan, authorities have continued a “harsh campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups.”

Less-serious offenses

A number of other states are accused of doing too little to avoid violations of religious freedom instigated by private groups or local officials.

Among this class of offenders is Egypt, where Christians and Jews have suffered difficulties. In India, the central government is blamed for occasionally being ineffective in ensuring religious freedom. Notable is a lack of action against Hindu extremist groups who attack minorities.

The government of Indonesia, meanwhile, is judged “incapable of controlling religious extremism or preventing the violence perpetrated and encouraged by radical groups claiming to represent certain religious views.” The report mentions in particular killings and forced conversions in the Moluccas, and the introduction of some parts of Islamic law in Aceh Province.

Nigeria draws criticism for its troublesome Muslim-Christian relations. The introduction of Shariah in a number of northern states has heightened tensions.

Not all is negative. The report detects progress in Mexico, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Hungary, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mozambique, Peru, Poland, Russia and Rwanda. The appeal of religious freedom, it seems, remains strong.

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