09/20/2008, 00.00
ASIA
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Religious freedom continues to decline in Asia

Serious and systematic violations of religious freedom are on the rise, including on the part of the authorities. This is the conclusion of the annual report of the U.S. State Department. Over the past year, there have been systematic persecutions in China and Myanmar, but the situation in India is also extremely serious.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - The situation of religious freedom in Asia is worsening, especially in China, but also in democratic India, according to the annual report of the U.S. State Department on religious freedom in the world.

The report, published yesterday, criticizes Beijing above all for the repression in Tibet following the protests in March, with hundreds of arrests and jail sentences, monks expelled from the monasteries and forced to participate in "patriotic reeducation campaigns", and to sign documents opposing the Dalai Lama. It also blasts the frequent arrests and imprisonment of the Islamic Uyghur population of Xinjiang, for as little as possessing unauthorized religious texts or participating in religious activities. Traditional religious practices, like fasting for Ramadan, are also forbidden.

The period before the Beijing Olympics also saw an increase of control over the media and persecution of any religious activity not sponsored by the state, with churches locked up, religious figures arrested or confined far from the Olympic cities, and believers from other countries expelled.

But the past year was also difficult for Asia as a whole, and saw a continuation of the systematic repression against religion in North Korea and Myanmar, where dictatorial governments want to block any form of dissent and possible opposition. In September of 2007, tens of thousands of Burmese Buddhist monks protested the military dictatorship, which responded with killings, torture, and imprisonment, placing the main monasteries under surveillance. The situation is also serious in Iran, where any dissent from the official Islamic faith is often punished as "an offense against religion", with frequent arrests and discrimination, and systematic control of the media.

Aggression and violence by the Muslim majority against the minorities, especially Christian, have also continued in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia (where many Christian churches and Ahmadi mosques have also been closed). In Laos, many local authorities have continued to persecute Christians, in part by seeking to "reeducate them". In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, any religious activity must be authorized, even prayer meetings: the government is reluctant to grant permits to certain religious groups, and punishes their activities with imprisonments and fines.

In democratic India, for many months there have been systematic attacks by Hindu extremists against religious minorities, especially Christians. In the state of Orissa, governed by the nationalist Hindu party Bharatiya Janata, during the Christmas season of 2007 alone, more than 100 churches and religious institutes and more than 700 Christian homes were attacked and burned. The police rarely intervened, or came late, and the Christians were forced to flee to the forests to avoid beatings and lynchings (in the photo: a priest who was attacked). The feeble response from the government and police spread the conviction of impunity, and fostered the repetition of aggression that, according to human rights groups, serves to consolidate the political power of nationalist Hindu parties in view of the elections in 2009. Many states have also maintained or introduced the notorious "anti-conversion laws", which in practice punish those who convert from Hinduism to another faith, and are often used to justify violence and arrests against non-Hindu believers.

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