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Religious freedom takes a dive across Asia

World's largest democracy joins communist and Muslim-majority nations as the region's worst offenders

Religious freedom takes a dive across Asia

Indian Dalit Christians hold a 2012 protest in New Delhi for equal rights. India has joined a list of worst offenders for religious persecution in a report by a US government agency. (Photo: AFP)

It was all bad news for Asian nations in the annual United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, with four more countries — India, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia — sliding down into the two lowest, most persecuting categories, joining Myanmar, China and North Korea.

The report certainly backs up the consistent themes of increasing persecution across the region that have been covered by journalists for UCA News and its sister publication, La Croix International.

The surprise but deserved return of India to the list of worst offenders — a recommendation that the US State Department designates as “countries of particular concern” — has been the primary focus of initial reporting. But there are multiple other sins by the region’s increasingly authoritarian governments that have been laid bare by this important yearly reckoning. The world’s largest democracy should not be a place where such overt religious discrimination and persecution should be allowed to prosper.

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One of the very few upsides of the Trump administration has been the heightened focus in Washington of religious issues across the world — and this applies especially to Asia. As well as an increased focus on this report, US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, appointed in 2018 and the first Catholic to hold the job, has been prominent in prosecuting the case against those who engage in religious persecution.

In terms of this week’s report, China and North Korea have been long-time cellar dwellers among 10 religious freedom states — persecuting believers of all faiths is something authoritarian regimes excel at all too well. The Kim dynasty has all but wiped out Christianity in North Korea.  

“There are no formally registered, independent houses of worship in North Korea. The government has established several state-sponsored religious organizations and permits five churches to operate in Pyongyang. However, human rights groups and defectors from the country allege that these institutions exist merely to provide the illusion of religious freedom,” the report said.

China continues to ramp up its program of “sinicization” of religion that has resulted in the worst five years of persecution since the Cultural Revolution (1996-76).

The report found that religious freedom conditions in China continued to deteriorate, noting that the Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, using facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor religious minorities. “On April 1, a new regulation requiring religious venues to have legal representatives and professional accountants went into effect. Some smaller religious venues, especially in rural areas, found these requirements impossible to fulfil,” it said.

Pakistan, too has been a regular at the bottom of the list and the report noted “the systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities to Islam — including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs — severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.”

In recent years, but perhaps overdue, was the addition to the lowest category of Myanmar for its ethnic cleansing/attempted genocide of Muslim Rohingya as the army chased, raped and killed more than 700,000 people, with survivors remaining in makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, one of the wettest regions on the planet.

“In 2019, the Burmese government continued to commit widespread and egregious religious freedom violations, particularly against Rohingya Muslims. Ethnic-driven conflict and degradation of other civil rights often coincide with religious differences, thereby severely restricting freedom of religion or belief,” the report found.

If India was a surprise candidate for some (there were dissenting views on the panel), then Vietnam was also. The country’s ruling Communist Party has long persecuted believers but has generally had a more positive view towards Catholics than in China; the country struck a deal with the Vatican in 2012 and never had a split in its Church between an official party-run group and a so-called underground church. But with far fewer Western journalists living and working in Vietnam in recent decades, there has been less focus on the sometimes nefarious activities of local party groups.

“During USCIRF’s September 2019 visit, multiple religious groups applying for registration reported that local officials regularly exceeded their authority by demanding information — such as congregants’ names — not explicitly required by the law. Applications were often pending with no formal decision for months or even years. Throughout the year, authorities interrogated, harassed or physically assaulted individuals affiliated with unregistered religious groups — including the independent Cao Dai, Khmer Krom Buddhists and Duong Van Minh — when they attempted to attend religious ceremonies,” the report stated.

Also sliding down the list were Southeast Asia’s two Muslim-majority nations, Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country and more than 80 percent Muslim, and neighboring Malaysia, which is about 60 percent Muslim but where ethnic Malays dominate the government.

The report found that conditions of religious freedom in Indonesia had deteriorated during 2019 as hardliners and other intolerant groups continued to threaten houses of worship associated with minority faiths, including by exploiting the 2006 Joint Regulation on Houses of Worship, which requires religious communities to obtain signatures from 90 congregation members and from at least 60 local households of a different faith, as well as receive approval from the local government before building a house of worship.

“In May 2019, hardliner groups protested — and reportedly threatened jihad — against proposed plans to build a Hindu temple in Bekasi. In July, after hardliner groups demonstrated and issued threats of violence, authorities in Bantul district, Yogyakarta, cited the 2006 decree in rescinding the permit of a Pentecostal church,” the report noted.

Throughout 2019 in Malaysia, non-Muslim communities, such as Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, reported feeling increasing strain and social hostility.

“A September directive issued by the Federal Islamic Affairs Department, an agency under the Prime Minister’s Department, barred interfaith prayers for Muslims at events involving both Muslims and non-Muslims. In a positive development, in June 2019 the government established a special task force to investigate the enforced disappearances of two prominent religious minority leaders. Nevertheless, the whereabouts of Christian pastor Raymond Koh and social activist and Shia convert Amri Che Mat, as well as of Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, remained unknown at the end of the reporting period,” said the report.

These disappointing trends require increased vigilance by human rights groups, media inside and outside these countries as well as nations like the US which promote religious freedom. In Asia, countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore — and perhaps Cambodia, an outlier authoritarian nation that has remarkably little religious tension — should take the lead.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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