08/27/2009, 00.00
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Religious freedom, an instrument for progress and stability

by Bernardo Cervellera
Attacks on religious freedom and violence against Christians embrace nearly all Asian countries. Western governments prefer to criticize some of the violations - such as those committed by Muslims - but are silent on the attacks against Christians in Vietnam or China. A preview of the August-September editorial from AsiaNews monthly magazine.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Late August marked one year since the anti-Christian pogrom in Orissa led by Hindu fundamentalists left hundreds dead and created tens of thousands of refugees. Commemorating the anniversary of that violence, the Church in India launched moments of prayer, vigils and cultural encounters in defence of the freedom of Christians and to urge India to return to being the multi-religious and multi-cultural nation it once was.

Yet the violence is far from over: not long ago we reported the sad news of the death of Fr James Mukalel, a priest from Karnataka, who was killed and stripped naked while returning from celebrating Mass. And we have documented the deadly episode in Gojra (Punjiab, Pakistan), where an angry mob of over 3 thousand Muslims attacked a Christian area of the village. At least 8 people - including 4 women and a child of 7 years - were burned alive and 20 others were injured. More than 50 Christian homes were burned and destroyed and thousands of faithful forced to flee to escape summary executions at the hands of young extremists incited by political parties and mullahs. Meanwhile, still in Pakistan, in the districts of North-West Frontier Province (near Afghanistan) the violence of the Taliban and the imposition of Sharia have led to the forced exodus of non-Muslim minorities, Christians included.

If we look at all of Asia, we see that this immense continent is among the most affected by the lack of religious freedom and the first victims are often Christians.

Currently, out of 52 Asian nations, at least 32 to some degree restrict the mission of Christians: the Islamic nations (from the Middle East to Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia) make it difficult for those who want to convert, India and Sri Lanka are leaning more and more towards the introduction of anti-conversion laws and the countries of Central Asia - excluding perhaps Kazakhstan - limit religious freedom; Communist nations (China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea) suffocate or even persecute the Church. Often, religious discrimination does not transmute into open war against religion, but it remains a phenomenon that permeates society, emerging from time to time in the cruellest of manners. One of the most recent cases is that of Vietnam in past weeks where priests and faithful of the diocese of Vinh (central Vietnam) have suffered violence and arrests. A priest was even thrown off the second floor of a building just because he and the faithful are opposed to the seizure of a church, whose land the government wants to use to make a holiday village (privately) owned by members of the Communist Party.

With great punctuality, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen religious freedom for his missionary prayer intention for the month of August: "So that the human rights, equality and religious freedom of those Christians who are discriminated against and persecuted in many countries because of the name of Christ are recognised and so they may live and practice their faith freely".

This appeal by the Pope urges prayer and solidarity among Christians. The same cannot be said of Western governments and societies.  One has the impression that religious freedom is a topic for debate only if it can be exploited for "internal purposes". For example, Islamic persecution of Christians is sharply emphasised (exploited perhaps to emphasise anti-immigration politics), but silence surrounds the suffering caused Christians by the economic and political hegemony of the Communist Party in Vietnam or China. In reality, greater clemency is afforded those economic partners from whom we hope to profit.

The realisation that freedom of religion - and in particular for Christians - serves the economic development of nations of which they are part, has yet to be grasped. Christians are reconcilers of  social conflicts and, at the same time, catalysers of human transformation beneficial to the economy, far more effective than compromises with some dictatorship or oligarchy. The stability of a society is born of respect for religious freedom, rather than armies and police control. The Pope reaffirmed this with great emphasis in his latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate which many politicians claim to have read, but only to immediately cast it aside.

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