07/04/2007, 00.00
ASIA
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Religious freedom at risk across Asia (overview)

On the occasion of a rally in Italy “against the exodus and persecution of Christians in the Middle East and for religious freedom around the world,” AsiaNews looks at the violations of religious freedom in Asia.

Middle East

SAUDI ARABIA

(Inhabitants: 24,293,844 – Christians: 840,000)

Viewed as a negative example by John Paul II, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia simply denies religious freedom to all non-Muslims. All non-Islamic religious activity, even by individuals in the privacy of their homes such as possession of non-Muslim religious books and objects, is banned. There are no official figures but it is estimated that hundreds of Christians are languishing in prison, primarily for leading prayer meetings.

IRAN

(Inhabitants: 65 million; Christians: 340, 000)

Christians in Iran are tolerated as second class citizens, as a distinct ‘ethnic minority’ that is separate from the rest of society and subject to a series of restrictions. Churches are ‘protected’ but also controlled by police. Missionary activities are strictly banned. Lack of religious freedom and economic prospects push those Christians who live in Iran to emigrate. Some Muslims do convert to Christianity but in secret and outside of the country. Several Protestants have been arrested and have had their religious material seized. Some converts have been condemned to death, their sentence sometimes commuted to life in prison. Baha’is are subjected to strict controls, have seen their places of worship destroyed, and have had some of their members executed.

IRAQ

(Inhabitants: 28 million; Christians: 1,5 million)

A Chaldean and an Orthodox priest have been killed after being seized by Islamic groups. Currently, the prevailing situation of anarchy, lack of security and rising fundamentalism have made Christians totally insecure. In some areas of the country, Christians have been raped, abducted, ransomed, threatened and murdered largely for religious reasons. Dozens of churches have been the target of terrorist attacks or destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled abroad. According to some unofficial estimates, more than half of all Iraqi Christians are in exile.

Lack of law and order, insecurity and growing violence have also pushed many Muslim families to emigrate. It is a humanitarian emergency for all Iraqi refugees but most of them are Christian.

PALESTINE

(Inhabitants: about 2,900,000 – Christians: about 200,000)

Free in theory, Palestinian Christians suffer from widespread harassment and have sometimes been violently attacked like the Sisters of the Rosary last month in Gaza. Generally, the authorities do not intervene. The situation has grown worse with the rise of fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Jihad. Hundreds of thousands have left the country. In Bethlehem 20 years ago Christians constituted 80 per cent of the population, now they are just 10 per cent. In Nazareth they were a majority, now they are only 15 per cent.

SYRIA

(Inhabitants: 17,585,540 - Christians: 920,000)

Syria’s Christians like all other Syrians do no lack so much religious freedom than political liberty. Still the country’s Christian minority is declining. Catholics have dropped from 2.8 per cent of the population in 1973 to 1,9 per cent in 2005.

TURKEY

(Inhabitants: 68,109,469 – Christians: about 100,000)

Theoretically secular, the Turkish state still refuses to officially recognise Christian Churches which are even denied the right to own their places of worship. Recently, Turkey’s Supreme Court ruled that the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople cannot call itself ‘ecumenical’ despite being so for the past 17 centuries. Muslim fundamentalism is also growing in the country and has taken a violent turn. Fr Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest in Trabzon, and three Christian employees of a Protestant publishing company, are among those killed. Many Christian believers and clergymen have been attacked.

North Asia

RUSSIA

(Inhabitants: 141,377,752 - Christians: 33,223,771)

Several groups suffer discrimination. Attitudes towards Muslims are negative in many parts of the Russian Federation. Many Muslims are caught up in anti-Chechen sentiments. The number of anti-Semitic incidents is also on the rise. According to a 2006 survey Russia was the most anti-Semitic country with a Christian majority. Many Jews have personally suffered assaults and threats. For many Russians even nominal identification with the Russian Orthodox Church is essential to the Russian national identity.

South Asia

AFGHANISTAN

(Inhabitants: 31,889,923 - Christians and others: 605,908)

The post-Taliban constitution guarantees religious freedom whilst recognising Sharia as the basis of the country’s legal system. Under Islamic law Muslims who leave their religion are liable for the death penalty. This happened in 2006 to Abdul Rahman, a convert to Christianity, who was forced to flee to Italy to escape execution. There are no public churches in the country. The only Christian place of worship is a chapel inside the Italian Embassy in Kabul.

BANGLADESH

(Inhabitants: 150,448,339 - Christians: 1,053,138)

Fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism are up. It is estimated the country has some 50,000 Muslim extremists ready to attack, including religious targets like mosques, churches Hindu and Buddhist temples. The last government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party pledged its support for orthodox Islam in order to gain support from radical Muslim groups. This has fanned the flames of persecution against allegedly heretical Muslim groups like Ahmadiyya Muslims. The country has 64,000 Islamic schools (madrassas), most of them beyond government control.

INDIA

(Inhabitants: 1,075,784,000 - Christians: 66,698,608)

In 2006 at least 215 anti-Christian attacks were recorded in India, ranging from profaning places of worship to killing community leaders. Violations of religious freedom are particularly significant in states run by Hindu nationalists but they are also rising in states run by so-called secular parties. The Muslim community is also targeted. Like Christians it endured at least 70 violent attacks last year. These incidents, their number and the trend they embody are part of the process of saffronisation of India, ostensibly a ‘back to the origins’ movement led by Hindu fundamentalists who don’t spare themselves from using violence to “reconvert” members of Indian religious minorities.

NEPAL

(Inhabitants: 28 million - Christians and others: 600,000)

After 238 years as Hindu theocracy the old Himalayan kingdom became a secular state in May 2006. However, persecution of Christians by Hindus for alleged proselytising has not stopped. In April 2005 a Christian couple that ran an orphanage since 1995 was arrested for allegedly baptising Hindu children. A nun-run school was bombed in July 2005. The same thing happened last April to another Christian orphanage.

PAKISTAN

(Inhabitants: 149,723,000 - Christians: 3,743,075)

Pakistan is officially an Islamic state but its constitution guarantees religious freedom to its citizens. For the most part laws are unfavourable to non-Muslims and unorthodox Muslim sects. The 1986 Hudood Ordinance (blasphemy law) is particularly controversial. In more than 20 years it has generated about 5.000 cases—560 ending in convictions with sentences ranging from five-year prison sentences to death (by hanging). At present, 30 cases are still pending before the courts. In addition there have been at least 24 known cases of extrajudicial execution of blasphemers, mostly of Ahmadi Muslims. For many observers the law has been frequently abused, used against political rivals and economic or commercial competitors.

Central Asia

KAZAKISTAN

(Inhabitants: 15 million – Christians: 1,6 million)

Intolerance towards religious minorities like Protestant Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Hare Krishna and Jehovah Witnesses is growing. State-run media tend towards denigrating coverage and propaganda of minorities. A Soviet-styled mindset still prevails. The government still exercises extensive prerogatives in the fight against so-called extremism to ensure public order, notions that it has not however clearly defined. Members of unregistered religious groups cannot engage in any activity, even praying, in the privacy of their homes. Those who are caught are heavily fined, often arrested and sent to prison. Many groups which have applied for authorisation have seen their application turned down.

KIRGHIZISTAN

(Inhabitants: 5 million – Christians: 300,000)

Islamic extremism has targeted Christians in the last few years, especially Protestants, who have been threatened, assaulted and beaten. There have been calls to shut down churches. In some villages mobs have attacked Christians to drive them out. The authorities have tended not to intervene; instead of protecting Christians they have urged them to be “less active.” They have however exerted tight control over the income of religious groups. In December 2005 a Muslim convert to Christianity was murdered in the southern part of the country.

TAJIKISTAN

(Inhabitants: 6.5 million - Christians and others: 130,000)

Broadly speaking there has been wide tolerance towards every faith so far. But the Tajik parliament is currently vetting a draft law that would recognise only religious groups with at least 400 adult members per district, 800 in all major cities (now the limit is 10). The bill would also ban religious home schooling and religious education for children under seven. Religious incomes would also come under state control and religious leaders would be banned from running from public office.

TURKMENISTAN

(Inhabitants: 5.5 million - Christians Orthodox: 129,000)

In December of last year the country’s dictator Nyýazow died. He authored the Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul), a ‘sacred’ text permanently in view in all mosques and taught in every school. Since his passing things have not improved for other religions since the state retains complete control over them. Christians have been fined, incarcerate and expelled. The Armenian Catholic community has not been recognised and its members cannot celebrate mass, except in some foreign embassy. Muslims are also under harsh pressures. The country’s chief mufti was sentenced to 22 years in jail. The state also appoints mosque preachers and has limited the number of exit visa for Hajj pilgrims.

UZBEKISTAN

(Inhabitants: 26 million - Orthodox Christians 195,000)

The state has gained total control over all religions and their activities, including Islam. It systematically persecutes Christians and other religious minorities. Punishment includes heavy fines and long sentences for people who meet in homes to pray. In prison believers are subjected to physical and mental abuse to force them to reject their faith. The secret police regularly pushes local officials to launch campaigns of intolerance against Christians. Muslim groups and preachers who try to operate independently of the state are also targeted.

East Asia

CHINA

(Inhabitants: 1.3 billion - Catholics: 12-15 million; Protestants: 35-50 million; Orthodox: 13,000)

Two underground bishops from Hebei province disappeared in the hands of the police. Mgr Han Dingxian, 67, vanished a year ago; Mgr James Su Zhimin, 74, has not been heard from for the past ten years. Tens of other bishops have been placed in isolation or are under tight surveillance. The same is true for many priests. Some clergymen are wasting away in forced labour camps.

Several Protestant churches have been destroyed, many Protestant Christians have been arrested, beaten, sent to prison. China’s small Orthodox group has not been recognised as an official religion.

Muslim Uighurs and Tibetan Buddhists suffer harsh persecution both individually (several death penalties) and collectively (threat of genocide)

NORTH KOREA

(Inhabitants: 22,776,000 - Christians 159,432)

The situation of religious freedom in this country is a tragedy of the greatest proportions. Since the end of the Civil War (1950-1953) the only cult admitted is the personality cult of the late Eternal President Kim Il-sung and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. It is estimated that some 300,000 Christians ‘disappeared’ since the founding of the Communist regime. Some 80,000 Buddhists have fled south. Anyone caught praying, whatever their religion, is usually sent to the nearest labour camp. Except for the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been blessed by Moscow’s pressure on its former protégé, no other religion has much hope in the country.

South-East Asia

PHILIPPINES

(Inhabitants: 84,538,000 - Christians: 75,830,586)

The mostly Catholic country in Asia has faced a 30-year-old Muslim insurgency, mostly in the southern part of the country. Here local Christians have been targeted by Islamic militias. However, experts believe that they are largely foreign fighters sent to fuel the conflict with the government.

INDONESIA

(Inhabitants: 234,693,997 - Christians: 22,530,623)

External Islamic terrorism and extremism have fed local political and economic interests and are real obstacles to guaranteeing full religious freedom in the largest Muslim country in the world. Many terrorist attacks have taken place during high holidays and targeted religious symbols and objects. In 2006 three Catholics were sentenced to death and executed after a summary trial for their alleged involvement in sectarian clashes. Muslims charged and tried for the same crimes were more leniently treated. In 2005 a group of Islamic terrorists beheaded three young Christian women in Poso. Religious minorities still face a lot of red tape to build their own places of religious. Home churches set up to fill the gap caused by this problem have often been shut down violently by Islamic extremists. In 2004 there were 70 recorded cases of such religious vigilantism.

LAOS

(Inhabitants: 6,068,117 - Christians: about 100,000)

On taking power in 1975, the country’s new Communist rulers publicly stated that they wanted to eliminate Christianity as “a foreign imperialist religion.” They then proceeded to expel missionaries—to this day it is impossible for any missionary to enter the country or any international missionary institution to operate in the country. In the last few years many Protestants have been arrested, the last in August 2006. The Catholic Church is also under tight controls.

MALAYSIA

(Inhabitants: 24,821,286 - Christians: 2,060,166)

The government has pursued affirmative action polices in favour of the ethnic Malay majority which has led to creeping islamisation. The rights of members of minority religious groups and Muslims alike are strongly conditioned by the country’s dual legal system, one based on Sharia which favours Muslims (and bans conversion from Islam) and the other based on the constitution and guarantees freedom of religion. When caught would-be ‘apostates’ are punished by means of ‘forced rehabilitation,’ jail time and hefty fines.

MYANMAR

(Inhabitants: 47,373,958 – Christians: 2,321,323)

The violation of religious freedom and the persecution of ethnic minorities are systematic in this country. The ruling military junta is an equal opportunity religious persecutor targeting Christians, Muslims and even Buddhists. The army might use Buddhism for its own propaganda purposes but like all Burmese majority Buddhists are also denied freedom of expression. Foreign missionaries are not allowed in the country. The government has restricted evangelisation as well as building and maintaining churches.

THAILAND

(Inhabitants: 62 million – Christians: 440,000; Muslims 2,850,000)

There is a great tradition of tolerance towards all religions in this largely Buddhist country. Its southern, predominantly Muslim, provinces are however affected by a Muslim-led separatist insurgency. Both the government and the rebel side have been blamed for human rights violations, attacks and killing. More than 2,200 people have died and more than 3,000 have been wounded. State-run schools have been particularly targeted by the rebels. Teachers are often under army escort. In April a bomb exploded inside a mosque.

VIETNAM

(Inhabitants: 82,689,518 – Catholics: 6,180,000)

Christians, a six-million strong minority, have endured persecution since 1975 with many of its members arrested and deported. In 2006, the government eased its tight controls as part of its campaign to be admitted to the World Trade Organisation. But after it got in it seems to be backsliding and using once again some of its old repressive tools. Harassment and arrests remain commonplace, especially among the Montagnards. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam is also persecuted.

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